ABC News' Teddy Davis Reports: A group of Democratic governors warned Saturday that a dramatic rise in the number of prisoners coming home over the next few years is one of four sociological trends that threaten to engulf the United States in a new crime wave if steps are not taken at the state and federal levels.
"Each of us here is committed to sounding a national alarm that after a 14-year decline, crime is actually on the rise once again in America and each of us as governors is committed to getting ahead of this," said Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
The Kansas Democrat made her remarks at a news conference to announce the release of a report by Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. She was joined by Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen. The "reentry explosion" is one of four trends identified in Third Way's report. The others are the "lengthening shadow of illegal immigration," the "sprawling parentless neighborhood of the Internet," and the surging youth population.
The enormous increase in the number of ex-cons coming home over the next five years is an outgrowth of the tough-on-crime policies followed over the last two decades. "Twenty years ago, fewer than 700,000 people populated the entire state and federal prison system," says the report. "Next year, 700,000 people will be released from prison and 3.5 million will be released over the next five years."
To address the "reentry explosion," Third Way recommends replacing "idleness with improvement" during each prisoner's incarceration, reconnecting prisoners with the community when their time behind bars winds down, and reconceptualizing parole.
The report recommends that an individualized 40-hour per week curriculum be developed for each prisoner to address barriers to success. Components of such a curriculum would include things such as literacy education, acquiring a GED, English as a second language, earning a two-year or college degree, mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment, parenthood training, and work designed to increase marketable skills on the outside.
For prisoners in the final 12 to 18 months of their prison sentences, the report recommends a series of measures to initiate a productive return home. Those measures include prison savings accounts, employment certificates, and state ID cards for those who have no other form of identification. The report also suggests connecting prisoners with employment opportunities and the expansion of family reunification programs.
Finally, the report recommends rethinking parole from "a culture of 'gotcha' to one of case management across state agencies and risk assessment and reduction for the community."
At the federal level, the report calls on Congress to pass the Second Chance Act, which would provide states with more resources to reduce recidivism. The report also calls for expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (E.I.T.C.) for single males without children. At present, the maximum EITC benefit for a single person without children is approximately $400 per year. It is over $4,000 for a single person with two children. "This gap needs to be narrowed," says the report, "to encourage single males to enter the workplace and choose a productive, rather than destructive path."
In her home state of Kansas, Sebelius has been at the forefront in addressing prisoner re-entry.
After she was elected governor in 2002, it was anticipated that Kansas would have a prison population going up about 15 percent over a six year period of time, costing the state about $80 million in beds that it would have to add to its correction system.
"Because of the steps that we have taken both in terms of training in prison, looking at drug and alcohol programs, and partnering with communities' re-entry programs in big cities, where most of the inmates are returning, we have now been successful in flattening our prison population," said Sebelius. "We actually have fewer inmates today than we did when I came into office five years ago."
Similar to the think tank's work on issues such as national security and abortion, Third Way's anti-crime proposals are designed to put progressive goals in a new centrist framework.
"This is not about blaming society. The direct question we are trying to answer is what to do in the here and now about the 700,000 prisoners coming out right now every year," Third Way's Rachel Laser told ABC News. "And the answer there was turning prisons from idleness to productivity, a 40-hour work week ... with class and counseling and the like, and a parole system that changes from 'I gotcha' to more of a graduated system that reacts appropriately and doesn't just try to put people back in prison but strives towards a different goal. It strives to put people back in the communities."