What’s going on with prison reform in America?

Posted at 10:04 AM, Oct 21, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-21 10:04:29-04

(CNN) — In a few weeks, some 6,000 inmates will be released from federal prison because of sweeping changes in U.S. sentencing guidelines for nonviolent drug offenses, approved last year.

It’s part of a move to overhaul the American criminal justice system, which incarcerates more citizens than any other nation in the world.

Why this push for change? Well, it depends whom you ask.

Liberals say it’s about fairness and creating job opportunities for ex-cons. Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, says “hiring practices often trap people with records in a life sentence of unemployment. If we are ever to meaningfully reduce recidivism … we must start by ensuring a fairer playing field for those looking to work.”

Conservatives have other reasons for supporting prison reform. “The fiscal argument is obvious — the U.S. spends billions on courts, police and correctional facilities,” Derek Cohen of the conservative think tank Right on Crime tells The Hill. “But you also have social conservatives concerned about what we’re doing to our communities, and libertarians suspect of government overreach.”

Here’s a look at some recent prison reform developments:

Senate considering big changes

The Senate is considering a prison reform bill that “reins in some of the most draconian sentencing provisions that for a generation have sent America’s prison population soaring,” write Alex Altman and Maya Rhodan of

According to that article, the bill would do the following:

Remove the “three strikes” law that calls for mandatory life sentences Allow 6,500 crack cocaine offenders to challenge their sentences by retroactively applying a 2010 bill that leveled the penalties for crack and powder cocaine Reduce solitary confinement in juvenile facilities Empower judges to use more discretion by abandoning mandatory sentencing guidelines

The timeline for when the bill might move to the House is unclear, but supporters are hopeful its bipartisan support will help its chances of becoming law.

“Our major leaders acknowledge that our justice system is broken,” writes Van Jones, a CNN commentator who co-founded the prison reform group #cut50. “The only question is how to fix it.”

Obama wants prison reform to be his legacy

In July, President Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison when he met with inmates and law enforcement officials at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma.

Obama has said that reforming the criminal justice system is a priority for his remaining time in office.

While praising Obama for visiting a federal prison, political science professor and author P. S. Ruckman Jr. said the President should and can do more.

“He can grant more pardons and commutations of sentence,” Ruckman wrote in a CNN commentary. “Obama has granted exactly one more commutation than the previous four presidents combined, even though he has received over 1,000 more applications for commutations of sentence than the previous four combined. Amazingly, Obama’s record on pardons is even worse.”

Massive prisoner release

The 6,000 federal prisoners slated for release between October 30 and November 2 have served an average nine years and were due to be released in about 18 months, a Justice Department official told CNN earlier this month. Many were already in halfway houses.

About one-third are noncitizens, so they will be turned over to U.S. Immigration Custom Enforcement officials for deportation proceedings, the official said.

The majority of those who will be released will head to the Southern United States, according to, citing Bureau of Prisons data.

Prison reform advocates see the release as one step toward reducing the United States’ staggering incarceration rate. According to Generation Opportunity youth advocacy group President Evan Feinberg:

“America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners. Nearly 2½ million Americans are in prison. Over 65 million people, or 20% of the country, have criminal records. Most disturbingly, nearly 40% of our country’s prisoners are African-Americans, who only make up 13% of the general population.”

The impact on the American family structure is undeniable: More than half the 2.5 million incarcerated Americans are parents of minor children.

Reforming how we treat ex-cons

Prison reform cannot end when inmates are released: there must be a change in the way America’s institutions support the reintegration of ex-convicts into society, writes Sen. Booker, a sponsor of the Fair Chance Act which would bar the federal government from asking about a job applicant’s criminal history until an offer is made.

A person’s chances at a callback interview for an entry-level job dropped by 50% when that applicant had a criminal history, according to a University of Wisconsin study cited in Booker’s commentary.

The New Jersey Democrat lauds companies like Starbucks, Home Depot, Wal-Mart, and Target for changing their hiring practices to try to give those with criminal records a chance at a job.

Some efforts to help reduce the rate of recidivism — or return to crime — are starting while prisoners are still behind bars.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently visited San Quentin where prisoners are learning how to code, an effort to help inmates stay out of prison after they’re released

Philanthropy groups have contributed millions of dollars to give prisoners a chance to earn college credit, The Wall Street Journal reports. One of those programs, the Bard Prisoner Initiative, includes a debate club made up entirely of inmates who recently bested members of Harvard College’s debate club.

And another prison program, featured in the upcoming episode of CNN’s “This is Life with Lisa Ling,” teaches dads how to be involved fathers to their children.

The episode, which premieres Wednesday, Oct. 21, centers around a father-daughter dance inside the jail.

“They want to prove to their daughters that they are working really hard and trying really hard to become productive members of society,” Ling explains.