Breaking News: Many People in Prison Eventually Leave Prison

From a Seattle Times investigative piece on what appears to be a a pretty impressive prison labor scam in Washington:

While lawmakers have pushed to increase the number of inmate workers, they’ve limited the educational opportunities that could help offenders find work outside of prison.

As part of a “get tough on crime” effort, the Washington Legislature in 1995 passed a law prohibiting state money from being used for higher education in prisons. Some taxpayers had griped that inmates were getting college courses for free.

Rep. Larry Springer, a Democrat from Kirkland who serves as deputy majority leader, views the CI jobs as “basic skill” work that may only help former inmates find very low-paying jobs. The better use of tax dollars would be for higher education for higher-skilled jobs. (my emphasis)

The fact that people in prison are often serving sentences that eventually lead to release does seems to escape policymakers sometimes. I’m not sure I understand what the argument is for blocking prisoners’ access to things that are likely to decrease the likelihood that they will commit crimes again once released. But I’m all ears if you have one.

Perhaps the answer has something to do with the fact that most people leaving prison aren’t headed for the communities where those policymakers live.

Immigration Reality Check

I realize most of the debate over the President’s immigration plan unveiled last week is going to focus on the the issue as to whether the President has the legal authority to unilaterally suspend deportation on the scale that he is proposing. But it’s also important to remember why something needs to be done. We have a huge and growing backlog in immigration cases in this country, and desperately need better guidelines for prosecutors to use in deciding whether to pursue deportation. From an article in the National Law Journal:

There were 421,972 cases pending in the nations 58 immigration courts as of the end of October — an increase of more than 22 percent from around the same time period in 2013, according to data released this week by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

… [T]he backlog of cases in immigration courts has been on the rise since the 2006 fiscal year, when there were 168,827 pending cases. In June 2011, John Morton, head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the time, issued a memorandum explaining that the agency lacked resources to go after every violation; instead, he said, the government should “prioritize its efforts.”

…Philip Wolgin, a senior policy analyst on the Center for American Progress’ immigration policy team, said the Morton memo didn’t work as planned. The language was “vague,” he said, and didn’t have clear enough directives about when prosecutors should stop pursuing low-priority matters.

“…The biggest problem is when ICE is indiscriminate about who it puts into removal proceedings,” [Peter Asaad, an immigration lawyer and managing director of Immigration Solutions Group in Washington] said. “The whole point here is to make it less indiscriminate.”

This is also important to keep in mind when certain members of Congress talk about using the appropriations process to block the President’s order. Congress doesn’t provide enough funding to deal with the immigration case backlog we already have, so any effort by Congress to block the President by starving the agencies responsible for enforcement is only going to make the problem worse.

Bring on the Pork!

Homer Welcomes the Return of Pork Barrel SpendingI tweeted this earlier but in case you are walled out by their subscriber paywall, here’s a fair use except of an interesting article in the Legal Times from yesterday concerning the possible return of Congressional earmarks. An earmark is a legislative provision that allows members to direct approved funds for specific projects, usually to a particular organization or project in their home state or district. Earmarks are popularly portrayed as pork-barrel spending and often cited as a corrupting influence on our politics. The practice became enough of a public relations liability that the House instituted a ban on the practice in 2010, and the Senate soon followed suit. Now some lobbyists (who obviously have a vested interest in this) are going around telling people it might come back:

Former Republican Congressman James Walsh, now at K&L Gates, has predicted that federal earmarks could return to Congress next year. The change could revive the lobbying industry and spark a now-stagnant Congress by giving it more discretionary power after the mid-term elections Tuesday, he said during a webinar sponsored by his firm.

“I think it would make things move better up there,” he said. A highway funding plan, he added, could revive the earmark—a legislative procedure that ended in 2010.

His prediction was among many shared by a K&L Gates panel of former members of Congress and a top lobbyist Monday.

Despite earmarks’ bad reputation, there are some who have argued that an outright ban of the practice was actually a bad idea, claiming it has actually decreased transparency in the appropriations process and shifted the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches too far to the executive. Others argue that the ban removed who a useful tool for lawmakers to have at their disposal as a way to broker deals on legislation.

In the case of adult education, would the return of Congressional  earmarks provide advocates with more leverage over the administration on how money on adult education is spent? I have no idea. I do suspect that without strong, knowledgeable advocacy from the field, Congress could also come up with some really bad ways to earmark adult education funds. But it seems to me the opportunity for leverage is almost always a good thing to have. Right now the administration calls all the shots, and I’m not sure that Congressional language “urging” the Department to “increase the focus on adults with the lowest literacy and numeracy skills” or “work with national adult literacy organizations,” as they did in the FY 2014 omnibus budget bill, is taken that seriously.

Second Chance Act Reauthorization Adds Support for Adult Education

Looking for a small federal policy win for adult literacy? Then I invite you to take a look at The Second Chance Reauthorization Act of 2013, a bipartisan (!) bill recently introduced in both the House and the Senate containing language that appears to open up a Department of Justice grant program to adult education/literacy providers by making it explicit that such services qualify.

Signed into law on April 9, 2008, the Second Chance Act (P.L. 110-199) authorizes federal grants to government agencies and nonprofit organizations that provide support strategies and services designed to reduce recidivism. There are two grant programs associated with this legislation, both administered by the Office of Justice Programs in the U.S. Department of Justice: the Bureau of Justice Assistance awards Second Chance Act grants serving adults, and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention awards grants serving youth returning from the juvenile correction facilities.

Last November, a bill to reauthorize the Act (S. 1690) was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Portman (R-OH) and Sen. Leahy (D-VT), along with an identical bill in the House (H.R. 3465), introduced by Rep. Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Rep. Davis (D-IL).

The reauthorization bill(s) offer more explicit language regarding the types of transitional services that may be provided by grantees funded under this grant program. It explicitly identifies education and literacy as one of the transitional services that may be provided by grantees. I know zippo about how/why this language got in there, but if the bill passes with this provision intact, it seems to me it presents an interesting opportunity for adult education providers.

The document below (click on it for a PDF) highlights the pertinent section. The new language is in bold.

Second Chance Reauthorization Act of 2013