Last week I attended the Smart on Crime Innovations Conference at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. While it was an informative experience of advocates preaching to the choir, I couldn’t help but feel like the movie Groundhog Day. The mantra of academia and the right left coalitions are the same while only the bill numbers have changed. For decades, we have been missing the mark in the federal justice reform conversation. Probably the most impactful presentations at the conference were from Silicon Valley and it was great to see technology companies taking an interest in re-entry.

Academics and organizations have studied these issues to death for decades when the answers have always been right under our noses. Probably the most profound statement I witnessed came from John Wetzel, Secretary of the PA Department of Corrections who spoke of “human dignity” and treating the incarcerated as “people”! As always, there was a discussion of what is the politically correct terminology for the word “inmate” which I’m sure is a frequent discussion at NGO Mafia luncheons and reform conferences. I wanted to jump up and say just insert the word “people” in virtually any situation and the context of the sentence takes care of itself. We will never reverse the stigma of a felony with rhetoric if we don’t address the underlying societal attitudes of our culture with action.

I use the phrase, “right under our noses” to mean there is a lesser need to study prison related issues and create new legislation until we have our house in order in the areas of changing organizational culture through leadership and public education while broadening current statutory and policy application. We can’t get ahead of ourselves with innovated programs when there is minimal accountability and transparency to the public by our federal correctional system.

Reform begins by hiring practices, training and what secretary Wetzel called treating people, yes people, with “human dignity”. I’m no bleeding heart liberal and am a believer in personal accountability but reform begins in the trenches of the system in more fundamental ways. Obviously, simultaneous practical reform legislation is needed such as the retroactive application of the crack to cocaine disparity reflected in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, expansion of the Safety Valve provision in the sentencing guidelines and increase in the amount of good conduct time earned. However, politicians and lobby groups have corrupted the legislative process and much of the crime legislation is simply missing the mark.

As always, I lament the hundreds of organizations, salaries, rents, egos, etc. of paid reformers and wonder what could be done with the resources if they were applied towards direct programs and services. Some are making a living on reform initiatives which may parallel the income of the prison industrial complex. Unlike dysfunctional bureaucracy, it’s not politically correct to challenge such bureaucracy as we tread water in the status quo of reform.

There is an answer if anyone will listen and it’s right under our noses!