Around 2 million individuals are behind bars in America’s criminal justice system. And almost all of them will eventually return to the communities they left behind. As a nation, we are failing to serve those communities by not preparing former inmates to re-enter society and lead productive and fulfilling lives.

In his recent State of the Union address, President Donald Trump said, “As America regains its strength, this 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.”

Baton Rouge's Jared Hymowitz stands to speak, discussing efforts of the social justice reform movement to dismantle the systemic structures put in place that have contributed to racism, at a mentorship training program held by Urban Congress on African American American Males Baton Rouge, for those wanting to mentor African-American males in Baton Rouge, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018. ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY TRAVIS SPRADLING

We are proud to be part of a new initiative, Safe Streets and Second Chances, which will work to combine policy reforms and evidence-based re-entry programs that will measure success not by incarceration rates but by whether former inmates are rehabilitated and capable of redemption. Researchers will initially examine four states — Louisiana, Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas — and work to prepare people for re-entry beginning on day one of their prison sentence, and have an individualized plan in place within two months of incarceration.

The numbers indicate the scope of the challenge. More than three out of four former inmates return to prison within five years of release, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That is a moral crime and a fiscal disaster. And, worst of all, it is an unforgivable waste of human potential. Nationally, more than 600,000 former inmates re-enter society every year. More than 100,000 of those are in our four targeted states.

Safe Streets and Second Chances will work with states to institute substance abuse and psychiatric counseling for individuals with mental illnesses or drug addictions; educational and literacy programs; vocational programs that teach usable job skills, and mentoring capabilities. Such programs should involve faith leaders and public-private partnerships, so the comparative advantages of these sectors can be brought to bear on the rehabilitation and redemption of individuals. Emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation is costly — $80 billion a year for incarceration at last count, and an even higher cost in the diminution of the human spirit.

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The system traps individuals in a soul-crushing cycle of poverty and prison, while doing next to nothing to make our streets safer. Proposals to address these challenges are not pie-in-sky do-gooderism. They are a clear-eyed assessment based on evidence and experience. In 2007, Texas projected it would need 17,000 new prison beds over the next five years. After implementing these and many other reforms, including expanded drug courts and mental health programs, crime dropped 31 percent — to levels not seen since the 1960s. Texas closed four prisons with plans to close four more, and saved $3 billion in the process.

South Carolina enacted similar reforms and cut its prison population by 14 percent, closed six prisons and saved $491 million. Other states have seen the results and are instituting programs focusing on education and training that are showing success in rehabilitating individuals and reducing recidivism. If three out of four patients were dying in our hospitals, or three out of four combat soldiers were ill-prepared to face the enemy, we’d do something about it. In a hurry.

Three out of four people in jail today will probably be back there if we don’t do something about it. In a hurry. 

Mark Holden of Arlington, Virginia, is chairman of Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce. Brooke Rollins of Austin, Texas, is president and CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.