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Incentives for inmates to choose a crime-free life

Shift in thought

A bill with wide bipartisan backing in the House and supported by Trump would boost rehabilitation programs in federal prisons, building on state successes in reforms aimed at inmates seeking redemption.

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The Mississippi Department of Corrections's horticulture instructor, Drew Dickerson (rear) and inmate Ronald Collins tend to tomato plants at the state penitentiary in Parchman, Miss., in March. The state restored two greenhouses last year at the prison in an effort to rehabilitate inmates.

Vickie King/The Mississippi Department of Corrections, via AP

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America’s faith in the ability of those in prison to redeem themselves often ebbs and flows based on which political party is in charge of law enforcement. So it is with some surprise that the US House of Representatives appears ready to pass a bipartisan bill that would improve rehabilitation programs in federal prisons, better preparing inmates for a crime-free life and a possible reduction of their time behind bars.

Support of the bill by both Democrats and Republicans may be a result of recent reforms in many states, such as Texas and Georgia, that have helped ex-convicts develop life skills for reintegrating into a community – the kind of reforms that many experts attribute in part to the nation’s lower crime rate in recent decades.

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The bill, known as the First Step Act, calls for the Bureau of Prisons to create individual plans for all people incarcerated in federal prisons to participate in education, job training, and other programs. Inmates could be assigned to prisons closer to their families. And those about to leave prison would be given help in setting up banking accounts and obtaining IDs. Those who participate in such efforts might be offered halfway houses or home confinement for the final part of their sentence.

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In short, the plan relies on the idea that individuals, no matter what their past crimes, are capable of making a choice between right and wrong if given the right support.

In early May, the measure was approved by the Judiciary Committee by a 25-to-5 vote. And President Trump says he is eager to sign the measure. “When we talk about our national program to hire American, this must include helping millions of former inmates get back into the workforce as gainfully employed citizens,” Mr. Trump stated last week. “America is a nation that believes in the power of redemption.”

The bill’s future in the Senate remains unclear. It could be changed, better funded than the House’s $50 million goal, or perhaps twinned with a pending bill on reform of sentencing guidelines.

At the least, the political momentum in Washington seems to be toward giving inmates a second chance by offering better incentives to adopt a higher sense of themselves and their possibilities. Part of the concept of freedom in the United States is the freedom of individuals to know what is good – and choose it.