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Cal Thomas: Time now for prison reform

| Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018, 9:00 p.m.
Melonie Grant, 56, of North Versailles, walks back to the Families Outside bus after visiting her boyfriend, an inmate at SCI Laurel Highlands, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Melonie Grant, 56, of North Versailles, walks back to the Families Outside bus after visiting her boyfriend, an inmate at SCI Laurel Highlands, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016.

It didn't seem to fit in President Trump's State of the Union address, perhaps something tossed in at the last minute, like a garnish. But there it was: “As America regains its strength, opportunity must be extended to all citizens. That is why this year we will embark on reforming our prisons, to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance at life.”

Like Richard Nixon opening the door to China, only a Republican could propose prison reform and not be labeled “soft on crime.”

It is not news that American prisons are overcrowded, cost too much to maintain and warehouse men and women, many of whom should not be there. There ought to be an alternative for nonviolent, non-lethal offenders. Those being released from prison should be offered a second chance without the mark of Cain being stamped on them.

One step in that direction may be in a recent story in The Washington Post. Ron Nelsen owns a garage-door company in Las Vegas, but has had trouble finding people to work for him. His assistant handed him Ian Black's resume, and when Nelsen looked at it, he discovered Black's recent jobs were all in a state prison.

Nelsen took a chance on the convicted burglar and hired him. Black is part of a work-release program. Nelsen calls him “my best worker.”

Nelsen is not alone. As The Post reports, more businesses are starting to give ex-convicts a second chance. This is not some liberal “feel-good” idea.

Ask yourself which approach is likely to cut the recidivism rate, which remains especially high for those who can't find meaningful work: A spirit of forgiveness, mercy and a second chance — or branding someone as irredeemable?

The question should answer itself.

If he follows through on his promise, Trump has an opportunity to go where few have gone before. Reforming America's prison system and, indeed, America's approach to incarceration, which has done little to redeem or reform anyone, would be a lasting legacy.

According to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), “The American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 901 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails and 76 Indian Country jails, as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers and prisons in the U.S. territories.”

One in five federal prison system inmates is there for nonviolent drug offenses. At the state and local levels it is different, and although most of the incarcerated are there for infractions unrelated to drugs, most states continue to arrest people for drug possession.

As the PPI notes, “Drug arrests give residents of over-policed communities criminal records, which then reduce employment prospects and increase the likelihood of longer sentences for any future offenses.”

The trend of hiring former inmates who have served time for nonviolent offenses should be encouraged. Most prisoners will return to society. Will society welcome them with a job and a second chance, thus reducing the recidivism rate — or ostracize them and increase the chances they will commit new crimes against new victims to survive?

Ron Nelsen is setting a good example. Others should follow, because who among us has not needed a second chance at something?

Cal Thomas is a columnist for USA Today.

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