Courtesy of the American Democracy Project Blog
by Pete Davis, StrongReturns.org Co-Founder
Americans care about the rehabilitative mission of prisons. In poll after poll, a vast majority of respondents assert that “the criminal justice system should try to rehabilitate criminals, not just punish them.” We want strong returns: prisoners reentering their communities with a second chance at life with the necessary connections and personal tools to find success.
And yet, the U.S. prison system has not been held accountable to rehabilitative results. Whereas the best prisons around the world are held to the standard of “better out than in”—prisoners being better off after prison than they were at the start of their term—American “correctional facilities” often leave the formerly incarcerated in worse shape than when they entered. Potential is squandered; families are fractured; communities are left open to recidivism risks.
Fortunately, Millennials—a generation free from the baggage of old “tough on crime” debates—have attitudes especially receptive to the project of revitalizing the rehabilitative mission of prisons. For example, 58 percent of Millennials—compared to 36 percent of those over 65—support allowing non-violent drug offenders to seal their criminal records. While 41 percent of Millennials—compared to 26 percent of those over 65—believe the criminal justice system is racially biased.
Furthermore, recent Millennial movements have proven immensely helpful to multiple causes, as students have shared personal stories with their campus networks. The DREAM Act and gay marriage became salient youth issues when DREAMers shared their stories of being undocumented to classmates, and LGBT students came out to their friends in conjunction with social media campaigns. If campuses were to be activated for prison reform to the level they are now around these issues, Millennials could help force prison reform on the agenda for the 2016 elections.
That’s why Scott Johnston and I, two recent college graduates and upcoming law school students, have launched StrongReturns.org, an initiative aimed at making prison reform the Millennial generation’s issue in the 2016 elections. The effort is centered on building, pushing and voting a Millennial Prison Reform Agenda, the first-ever prison reform agenda developed to express Millennial values and publicized with Millennial voters in mind. We’re building this agenda the Millennial way: authentic, viral and bottom-up, by organizing a generation-wide conversation about prisons and prison reform.
To get this conversation going, we have been:
- Hosting campus events throughout the South to spotlight ways students and administrators can build campus-to-prison bridge organizations that promote sustained engagement between college communities and their nearby prison and reentry communities;
- Building an online presence at StrongReturns.org and its social media channels, so that students across the country can submit their own stories and policy proposals to the Millennial prison reform community; and
- Launching a national Millennial Prison Reform Network to connect students, professors and administrators who are involved in engaging their campuses in prisons and prison reform.
With Washington deadlocked, it may be the case that only issues with appeal to both sides of the aisle have a shot at making progress in the coming years. Prison reform—which serves the marginalized, holds government accountable and lowers costs for taxpayers—is one of those Left-Right causes. Think of how powerful a message will be sent if, while Washington bickers, Millennials from all political backgrounds—from libertarian to racial justice to religious—came together on campuses across the country to heal one of our nation’s darkest wounds.
To join up, visit StrongReturns.org. We would love to have you join the Millennial Prison Reform Network, share your prison system story, submit a proposal for the Millennial Prison Reform Agenda, host a campus event or start a campus-to-prison bridge group in your neck of the woods…seriously, anything helps.
The Washington Post recently reported, “In many parts of America, particularly the South, there are more people living in prisons than on college campuses.” Fortunately, it might be students on those campuses who can turn the tide.