Opinion: Integrating the Social Safety Net into America’s Prisons


By Ebony Slaughter-Johnson

President Trump signed the First Step Act into law on December 21. The legislation represents the culmination of years of energy on both the left and the right to reform the criminal justice system.

While most of the attention has been focused on the legislation’s contribution to sentencing reform, far less has been paid to its attempts to facilitate the reentry process for incarcerated Americans back into society. Among other changes, the First Step Act provides $250 million over the next five years to empower the Bureau of Prisons to expand access to programming designed to boost the employment prospects of returning citizens. In doing so, the First Step Act ostensibly acknowledges the difficulties with maintaining economic stability that many, if not most, of those who come into contact with the criminal justice system face.

However, the depth and persistence of these difficulties demands more robust reentry measures than those currently provided by the First Step Act.

Undercompensated and unemployed

Economic instability defines the lives of incarcerated Americans every step of the way.

The Brennan Center for Justice estimated that 80 percent of incarcerated Americans enter the criminal justice system having lived in poverty. Even those who are employed struggle with poverty prior to their incarceration.

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