White House Launches Website To Help Former Felons

President Donald Trump has viewed urban crime as nothing more than a menace since first stepping into office. The recent social unrest over the past has only made him stand even more firm in that notion, even expressing his dislike of states releasing prisoners early amid the coronavirus outbreak. 

Despite saying that he would send federal troops into various cities to handle crime, the White House has aggresively taken on recidivism prevention measures like the First Step Act, and now says it is making use of several government agencies to aid in the release of federal prisoners.

In February, Trump named Rev. Tony Lowden, pastor of Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., as executive director of the Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry. The group’s intent is to provide resources for people leaving the federal prison system and reentering society. On Friday (Aug. 7), it launched its Reentry Resource Center website (Reentry.ojp.gov) to create a platform that is aimed at helping ex-felons. 

Despite any criticism of the administration’s efforts’ Lowden affirms that the White House has been doing this work through the Council since the implementation of the First Step Act in December 2018.

“We’re doing things that have never been done before,” said Lowden in an interview with BET.com “When the president came into office, we had 205,000 men and women in our federal prisons. “Today, as we launch this Re-entry website, we’re down to 158,000 under his leadership. A majority of those who have come home, and a majority of those who we’re preparing to come home are African Americans who get an opportunity to be reunited with their families.”

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Conservatives have cited early prison releases of felons due to the coronavirus pandemic as a possible reason for the recent upticks in urban crime, although some statistics refute that. But Lowden points out that there is a stark difference between what is being done at state prisons, which the president has no jurisdiction over, and the work being done to aid in reentry on the federal level.

“There’s a difference between what we’re doing in the federal system and what they’re doing on the state level as far as the violence spikes that we’re seeing in our community,” said Lowden. “Too many of our states are just letting people out randomly because of the pandemic. On the federal side, we do a pattern assessment. We make sure that the hardcore violent folks, if they’re not ready to go home, they’re not going home until they meet their time or have had a change and took our programs and are ready to go back home.”

Lowden says that the program readies federal prisoners for re-entering society before they are released by doing things like bringing employers into the prisons to do interviews; giving them tools to make them ready for work, helping them get high school diploma equivalency and even helping them obtain birth certificates and social security cards.

Friday’s meeting of the Council included Attorney General William Barr and the heads of other agencies to focus on making the reentry program a success. 

“The only way we’re going to be able to move the needle,” he said, “the President has decided all the agencies [have] got to work together. That’s why we have the White House Revitalization Zones, that’s why we have the Opportunity Zones and that’s why today inside the situation room…we were talking about how do we do criminal justice reform.”

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Although employers and the private sector in general are incentivized to participate in the federal re-entry program through tax credit programs, according to the White House, the target, Lowden says, is “all Americans.” 

“The providers that are providing what we call the ‘continuum of care,’ and case management for all the people that serve our returning citizens when they come home,” he said. 

In Georgia, where Lowden once led the prison reform efforts in a similar position, incorporated the use of websites as a clearing house for people to find things like grants, faith-based organizations, and other helpful resources. The aim of the Council and this reentry website is the same vein. “So right now, every American can get that information including our returning citizens who are looking for extra help and resources as well.”

President Trump has released at least 3,000 prisoners under his prison reform programs and while there is debate over the effect on crime, Lowden said prison recidivism on the federal level has been kept low.

“If you look at pre-pandemic numbers, recidivism across the nation was low because of all the things we’ve done from OJP [Office of Justice Program] grants…all the things we’re doing to prevent folks from going back into the prisons. And then when the pandemic hit, we’re starting to see a rise in those areas.

“The question you’ve got to ask yourself as we drill down in this,” he continued, “what’s happening in these cities that’s causing these high numbers where men and women are committing crimes in these communities.”

Ultimately, Reentry.ojp.gov will work, Lowden says, because all of the agencies involved “are on the same page.”

“…We talked about giving men and women a second chance,” he said. “We talked about giving men and women who are on drugs a second chance. We talked about giving our veterans a second chance. The only way we can make our communities safe is that when men and women come home from prison, we’ve got to have those returning citizens be welcomed back into the community and that’s what we’re doing today.”

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