A couple of weeks ago, Trump designated April as Second Chance Month. He declared that our nation must “provide opportunities for people with criminal records to earn an honest second chance.” Just before that declaration, on March 7, Trump established a Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry. In doing so, Trump said that we need “to provide those who have engaged in criminal activity with greater opportunities to lead productive lives.”
All this talk sounds great, but unfortunately, that’s all it is.
In action, this White House and Department of Justice have made clear that they are not interested in second chances. When it comes to policies that eliminate barriers and encourage success for those reentering society after prison, rhetoric and action do not match up. For example, the Department of Agriculture is considering cuts to its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — a critical food and income supplement for those reentering society — to which the ACLU objected. SNAP can serve as a lifeline for those whose past mistakes prevent immediate employment due to the stigma of having a criminal record, limited work experience, or occupational licensing bans. Thanks to a recent executive order, cuts to federal assistance programs are now even more likely to come to fruition.
Then there is the Department of Education. Secretary Betsy DeVos has yet to announce whether it will continue to make federal grants for higher education available to those incarcerated, which has been proven to reduce recidivism. These grants, known as Pell grants, have benefited approximately 4,000 incarcerated persons since 2015 under an Obama administration program. But college classes and vocational training for those in prison will end this year if this administration doesn’t act. So far, DeVos has said the program is an “interesting possibility” but that “the department is not really involved with criminal justice reform issues.” The Department of Education, however, has been assigned to the Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry, so let’s hope they get up to speed quickly.
More telling is what the administration has failed to do: Get behind policies that would ease reentry for the more than 600,000 people released from prison each year. There has been no support for federal legislation like the REDEEM Act, which would ensure criminal records are not a bar to employment, or the Fair Chance Act, which would give those returning to society a fair shot at being hired by the federal government. Let’s be honest, the Trump administration is more committed to investing in prisons — particularly private prisons — than it is to investing in people.
Should the Trump administration get serious about giving people second chances, there is no shortage of reentry policies for them to support. The collateral consequences of incarceration can persist long after someone has served his or her sentence: 75 percent of formerly incarcerated persons are still unemployed one year after release; one in five people who leave prison will become homeless due to housing barriers; and 6.1 million Americans with felonies are denied the right to vote.
These startling statistics are why the ACLU and coalition partners are advocating for mentoring, housing, education, employment, and voting opportunities for those reentering society. Our work will continue until the rhetoric of second chances becomes a reality — with or without the Trump administration behind us.