inmates in training session

When my family lived in Mississippi, we hosted several inmates in our home as part of a Prison Fellowship program designed to prepare prisoners to transition back to their communities.

During these two-week homestays, the prisoners focused on giving back — working with Habitat for Humanity and speaking in schools, for example. I was surprised by how many of the soon-to-be released inmates were eager to talk to high school students, encouraging the young people not to make the same mistakes that had landed them in prison.

Indeed, formerly incarcerated persons who have learned hard lessons are potentially some of the most effective mentors for youth. We could do more to benefit from their life experiences.

The U.S. Congress recently passed a criminal justice reform bill that would reduce sentences for many nonviolent offenders and cut recidivism rates by reducing the barriers prisoners face in rejoining their communities in productive ways.

But the Senate’s “First Step Act” applies only to the small sliver of persons (about 180,000) incarcerated in the U.S. federal system. Far greater numbers — nearly 2 million — are incarcerated in state prisons and local jails.

In the United States, criminal justice reform is one of the few political issues with strong bipartisan support.

Virginia lawmakers have the opportunity to act creatively to make changes that not only save money, but contribute to the well-being of communities across the commonwealth.

Virginia is already on a good path. It has the lowest recidivism rate in the nation — 22.4 percent.

According to Virginia Parole Board Chair Adrianne Bennett, “When it comes to recidivism for paroled felons, that number drops to 5 percent in Virginia. And when just looking at discretionary parolees, it’s only 1 percent.”

One low-hanging fruit for further criminal justice reform is to parole more elderly inmates.

There are currently 125,000 elderly prisoners incarcerated in the United States — at a cost of $16 billion per year. Without dramatic changes in sentencing and parole policies, that number could grow to 400,000 by 2030 — at a cost of more than $50 billion per year.

According to the Center for Justice at Columbia University, the cost of incarcerating someone age 50 or older is two to five times the cost of incarcerating someone 49 or younger.

A report by the American Civil Liberties Union — At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly — says that “Today, we have over fourteen times as many prisoners over age 55 as we did in 1981.” This dramatic increase is due in large part to tough-on-crime laws that began in the 1980s.

The report notes that “we are imprisoning people for far too long, and we are spending too much keeping them there — even when there is limited public safety benefit.” Indeed, an abundance of evidence demonstrates that recidivism drops dramatically with age.

“The time is ripe,” the report concludes, “for states to revise parole practices to release aging individuals that are no longer a substantial threat to public safety and to reform our sentencing laws so that fewer prisoners grow old behind bars. ... States on average will save $66,294 per aging prisoner released per year, even if those prisoners rely on public assistance for support upon release.”

Certainly, Virginia and other states can use these funds in more creative and cost-effective ways.

Acting to reduce crime by providing access to programs and resources that build healthy and sustainable communities is one approach.

Another is investing in job skills and counseling programs that prepare inmates to make productive contributions upon release, then providing support networks to help them reintegrate into society. Both factors have proven to lower recidivism rates.

Of course, there are risks in paroling prisoners. But we do well not to overlook the many contributions that formerly incarcerated men and women can make to society.

Tyrone Werts, who served 36 years of a life sentence, is just one example of a formerly incarcerated person having a big impact on his community.

Now in his 70s, Werts works with The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program in Philadelphia to bring together incarcerated (inside) and non-incarcerated (outside) people “for transformative learning experiences that invite participants to take leadership in addressing crime, justice, and other issues of social concern.”

At 593 per 100,000 people, the United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than every country in the world except El Salvador. By comparison, Germany and Japan incarcerate 75 and 41 per 100,000, respectively.

We can do better! Incarcerating so many people is not good for budgets or for building communities that can grow by engaging with those who have learned from their mistakes.

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J. Daryl Byler is executive director of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. The center offers an M.A. degree in restorative justice, an approach that emphasizes repairing harms rather than punishment. Contact Byler at daryl.byler@emu.edu.

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