It takes two: how effective partnerships can change the face of America's justice system

By Steven W. Hawkins

Sometimes, it takes an outside perspective to see the full potential in a situation.

When married business partners Beverly Parenti and Chris Redlitz researched America's criminal justice system, they were appalled by the statistics they discovered: An overall $48 billion budget for state and federal prisons, a recidivism rate of more than 60 percent, and a 700 percent increase in prison population over the last four decades.

Their interest in the topic had begun after a lecture Redlitz gave at San Quentin in 2012. Although the inmates' attentiveness and eagerness revealed great potential, more likely than not, this potential would have been wasted upon release, and many of the men would eventually re-offend after release for lack of opportunity to better themselves. As Redlitz puts it, "You don't have to be a professional investor to realize [our current system] is a bad investment for taxpayers."

And so he and Parenti worked with California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the California Prison Industry Authority to create The Last Mile program. The program started out as a business training initiative at San Quentin, where Parenti and Redlitz helped inmates design a business that combined their personal interests with a social issue and technology. It eventually grew into a computer coding curriculum used in multiple California prisons to train and place inmates in hard-to-fill tech jobs upon their release.

The program has been so successful that a total of 25 states and countries have expressed interest in implementing it.

The Last Mile is effective because it has buy-in from both businesses, who take the risk of employing the formerly incarcerated, and the public-sector policymakers, who took the risk of letting outside investors like Redlitz and Parenti come in to develop the program.

We need to see more of these kinds of public-private partnerships happen across the criminal justice reform landscape. We want other industries to show the same kind of willingness to invest in justice that the tech industry has shown, and to see more companies push to hire ex-offenders.

In 2016, 19 major companies like American Airlines, Facebook, Google, Starbucks, and Uber signed the "Fair Chances Business Pledge" – a pledge to give Americans with criminal records an opportunity to find employment. More initiatives like this from the private sector mean that the 1 in 3 Americans with a criminal record stand a better chance of finding employment and turning their lives around instead of turning into yet another recidivism statistic.

We also need more states to do what California has done and develop policies that make the justice system fairer and make re-entry easier. This not only means embracing programs like The Last Mile but also means embracing fair sentencing and fair chances laws. In 2014, the state passed Proposition 47, a law that re-categorized several nonviolent crimes as misdemeanors, thereby saving taxpayer dollars and preventing non-violent, low-level offenders from entering the cycle of recidivism. Currently, it is considering Assembly Bill 1008, a ban-the-box bill that would prevent employers from asking if a candidate is a convicted criminal either on an application or prior to offering the job.

States like Texas and Georgia have both made huge reforms in recent years, with Georgia reducing state spending on corrections by $20 million and Texas managing to close three prisons and save $3 billion. And there has been a push for change on the federal level as well. In a remarkable show of bipartisanship, Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Conn., crafted the CORRECTIONS Act in 2015, which allows inmates to reduce their time in prison by taking part in recidivism reduction programs.

Indeed, teamwork between two different stakeholders is what makes the greatest impact in any criminal justice reform. As president of the Coalition for Public Safety, I see this kind of teamwork happening every day, as groups like FreedomWorks and the Faith and Freedom Coalition come together with groups like the NAACP and the ACLU to push for a fairer, better system.

As The Last Mile shows us, whether it's the public and private sectors, Democrats and Republicans, red states or blue states, investors and policymakers, state and federal government – or husband and wife – at the end of the day, it's in working together that we accomplish real, lasting change.

Steven Hawkins is the president of the Coalition for Public Safety.