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Reforms will help ex-cons and society

Reforms will help ex-cons and society

Efforts seek to ease transition from prison to freedom

While some are running around trying to get human rights for imprisoned animals, some in state government are seeking human rights for imprisoned people.

Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, acting on the recommendations of his Council on Community Re-Entry and Reintegration, announced a dozen new initiatives that will make it easier for non-violent criminals to ease back into society and lead productive lives.

Not everyone who is in jail or prison is a permanent threat to society. And not everyone who is arrested for a crime serves a life sentence in prison. Eventually, those people are released.

But some continue to serve a life sentence because of discrimination based on their criminal convictions. What often awaits them on the outside are significant challenges in housing, employment and health care that make it difficult for them to readjust.

That can result in these struggling individuals resorting to crime and getting sent back to jail — fueling a vicious cycle of crime and poverty and unnecessarily costing taxpayers on several levels.

Right now, it costs about $60,000 a year to incarcerate a single inmate. Imagine the savings to taxpayers — in terms of not only lower incarceration costs, but the costs of social services and crime — if some of those inmates can be successfully reintegrated into their communities and families. Those costs are what the governor's proposals are intended to offset.

One recommendation would forbid discrimination in public housing based solely upon a conviction. Another ensures that those with criminal records can obtain state licenses, such as for selling real estate or being a barber or paramedic. Another limits inquiries by state agencies into criminal backgrounds.

The state also plans to increase access to health care, as substance abuse treatment is often needed to keep former inmates on the straight and narrow. The plan will also ensure that mentally ill people can get treatment and housing. And it will reduce bureaucratic barriers to non-abusive former inmates living with their spouses and families.

Research shows that former inmates who have been subjected to re-entry policies are less likely to commit new crimes.

These proposals won't solve all the problems associated with incarceration, including housing youths with adults and holding non-violent offenders in jail because they are unable to secure bail.

But the efforts are a good first step that must be followed by more study, more initiatives and more accountability.

Let's hope they continue.

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