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President Pushes to Give Offenders a Second Chance as States Lead The Way in Prison Reform

Throughout the last year, President Obama has been adamant about rolling out new policies to assist in prison reform and reducing the high rates of recidivism.

On Monday, the president set aside a day to honor ex-convicts who have made a successful re-entry into society. In addition, states are continuing to focus on giving more offenders a chance to create their own success stories.

One of the honorees was Stanley Richards, a New Yorker who was once in and out of jail as a teenager, but is now an executive with the Fortune Society.

Growing up in the Big Apple during the 1980s exposed Richards to drug and gang culture, which eventually landed him behind bars for nine years on robbery charges.

Richards said that when he was behind bars he realized a prison life wasn’t for him.

“Just maybe, through education, things could get better,” he said according to Time magazine.  After he was released he struggled to find employment because of his lack of experience and crime conviction. But when he crossed paths with the Fortune Society, his life took a positive turn.

The Bronx-based nonprofit hired him as a counselor, and he was soon climbing a career ladder that has already earned him several promotions over the past 23 years.

Not every prisoner is as fortunate as Richards, however.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly 68 percent of released prisoners return to prison within three years. That number increases to nearly 77 percent over five years.

The Obama administration has been working toward prison reform policies that would reserve harsh penalties for serious crimes, and it has been pushing for retroactive relief for offenders who were arrested during the time when federal laws were severe for some drug crimes.

eric holder 1Back in April, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that  new policies could lead to reduced sentences for many current inmates.

Meanwhile, state governments have been key to providing offenders with a second chance.

The Council of State Governments’ “State Pathways to Prosperity” initiative has been working to improve states’ approach to criminal justice and criminal re-entry.

States such as Pennsylvania and Rhode Island have significantly reduced the number of offenders who are returning to prison by assisting them in securing jobs upon their release.

“We’re trying to transform the system by looking at the needs of the community and the needs of offenders,” said John Wetzel, the secretary of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

To achieve this, the Department of Corrections has worked closely with employers to ensure recently released offenders are able to get work and increase their chances of staying out of prison.

The director of corrections in Rhode Island, A.T. Wall, said that employment and housing are the “twin pillars of effective reintegration.”

“I have an opportunity to spend a lot of time in our institutions, talking to inmates shortly before release,” Wall told Time. “When I ask them, ‘What do you need?’  The overwhelming majority say, ‘I need a job.’ ”

Both Wall and Wetzel were present at the Champions of Change ceremony on Monday, which honored a variety of people who have aided in reducing the number of prisoners who return to jail.

Both men were included in a panel that took place on the same day to discuss the best practices for prisoner re-entry, and to push for more state governments to adopt programs that help employ offenders.

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