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February 03, 2023

House Task Force Aims To Help Ex-Cons Thrive After Prison

Credit: Law360

“Law360 (February 3, 2023, 9:14 PM EST) — More than two dozen members of Congress have banded together to create a new bipartisan task force focused on aiding former inmates’ reentry into society.

The task force — composed of 13 Democrats and 13 Republicans and spearheaded by Rep. David Trone, D-Md., Rep. John Rutherford, R-Fla., Rep. Kelly Armstrong R-N.D., and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester D-Del. — aims to promote reforms and other polices with a particular emphasis on improving the current 27% unemployment rate for ex-convicts.

Trone told Law360 that the task force aims to do this in two ways: first by introducing “”common sense”” legislation into Congress, and then by holding events to bring more attention to the issue.

The group got together for the first time on Wednesday to meet with Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters and National Institute of Corrections acting head Alix McLearen.

“”It’s no secret that we’re facing some major challenges in our criminal justice system, especially when it comes to recidivism,”” Trone said. “”Returning citizens often have a hard time finding employment, housing, and health care because of their criminal records. In order to lower our country’s recidivism rate, we must work toward reducing barriers to reentry.””

Trone has already introduced a bill he thinks will help solve the problem, The Fresh Start Act. The bill would create funding for automatic record-clearing so people with qualifying records who have completed the terms of their sentences and have remained crime-free would automatically get their records expunged.

“”This is how we give folks a second chance, and help them rebuild their lives,”” Trone said.

He said the group is also working with the Federal Bureau of Prisons to ensure that citizens who return from prison immediately have a government ID or driver’s license, something Trone said not all former inmates have access to now.

“”Most returning citizens don’t have a valid government ID or driver’s license, which prevents them from opening a bank account, putting a deposit down on a house, and easily getting to work and back,”” he said.

Trone has a background in business — the Maryland Democratic representative and his brother co-founded and co-own alcohol retailer Total Wine & More, which now has more than 200 stores in the U.S. He said it’s this background that has shown him the importance of “”hiring returning citizens and giving folks a second chance.””

As for Rutherford, the Republican lawmaker said in a statement that his time as sheriff in Jacksonville, Florida, gave him a firsthand glimpse of how challenging reentry can be for formerly incarcerated people.

“”From getting an ID to finding a job, stable housing, and health care, these individuals face many barriers to success after incarceration,”” said Rutherford, who during his tenure as sheriff was credited with increasing the office’s focus on mental health and creating a robust reentry program in Northeast Florida.

He said that helping former inmates readjust to society can help make communities safer and reduce the number of repeat offenders.

“”That’s not being soft on crime, that’s being smart on crime,”” Rutherford said in a statement.

Trone said the issue is personal to him. In 2016, his nephew died of a fentanyl overdose.

“”With his struggle with substance use disorder came a criminal record — a record that prevented him from accessing the job market, housing and many other services that might have helped him get back on track,”” Trone said. “”Far too many incarcerated individuals are facing the same challenges that Ian faced, and I know that addiction, mental health and our criminal justice system are all connected.””

Trone said the task force plans to hold events monthly aimed at bringing attention to the need for more criminal justice reform. He said the group hopes to organize a reentry simulation to allow participants to experience firsthand the challenges citizens face when they exit prison. They’re also planning a briefing with the business community to discuss the importance of hiring returning citizens, as well as a visit to a local prison.

Among the other representatives heading up the reentry efforts are Lisa Blunt Rochester, a Delaware Democrat, and North Dakota’s Republican representative Kelly Armstrong.

Armstrong focused on immediate needs of newly freed inmates. “”The most critical time for someone leaving incarceration is the first 30 days after release, yet they face many obstacles,”” he said in a statement. “”We have to be smarter about how we can help provide the stability they need. That’s why I’m honored to team up and co-lead this critical, bipartisan task force.””

Blunt Rochester said that the current state of employment in the U.S., where “”we know that we currently have more job openings than those looking for work,”” could be an opportunity for those returning from prison.

“”That reality presents us with an opportunity to break down barriers to those who have been traditionally excluded from the workforce, such as justice-involved individuals,”” she said. “”I’m thrilled to be joining colleagues from across the aisle and political spectrum to create second chances for those who have paid their debt to society and are looking to better their lives.””

Blunt Rochester, who is the assistant whip for the House Democratic leadership, said the task force will also champion her Clean Slate Act, which establishes a framework for sealing records related to certain criminal offenses, including simple possession of controlled substances or any nonviolent offense involving marijuana. The bill was introduced in April 2021, and the House ordered that it be amended in September.

Another legislative issue on Trone’s agenda is reforming the Medicaid Inmate Exclusion Policy, which denies Medicaid to incarcerated individuals and pretrial detainees.

“”Many mental health issues and all substance use disorders are chronic conditions and a sudden lack of treatment can lead to health problems while incarcerated as well as rearrest and increased recidivism upon reentry,”” he said. “”My Due Process Continuity of Care Act would amend this policy so that pretrial detainees can get the health care coverage that they need in between arrest and potential incarceration.””

In terms of how much the task force’s agenda will cost, Trone said that the country is already spending $80 billion a year on the U.S. prison system and that it’s worth investing in the 600,000 people who exit prison every year.

“”I am acutely aware of the funding needed to address these issues,”” Trone said. “”Each bill has its own funding requirements, but across the board the fact is that every dollar invested in improving reentry programs will improve economic opportunities for returning citizens, reduce recidivism and ultimately save taxpayers money in the long term.””

–Editing by Rich Mills.”