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Criminal justice reform legislation: helping inmates re-enter workforce

Prison cell

Criminal justice reform that puts people back to work, protects communities and saves tax dollars. That’s what one piece of legislation is trying to do. The bill was authored by Rep. Andy Gipson and looks to help prisoners re-enter the workforce to be productive members of society.

The bill  would change several parts of state law to help inmates coming out of prison get on their feet financially and avoid going back to prison or jail immediately for not being able to pay fines and fees and would ensure that Mississippians are not automatically sent back to prison for their inability to pay court fines and fees. The measure also allows inmates who are convicted of certain crimes to be parole eligible after serving 25 percent of their sentence.

“I don’t consider this a re-entry bill,” said John Koufos, National Director of Reentry Initiatives with Right on Crime. “I consider this a public safety bill. The interventions in there are going to lead to better public safety outcomes and help turn tax drains into tax bases.”

Koufos congratulated Mississippi for its work in the area of criminal justice reform and encouraged us to continue in efforts to protect taxpayers. He added that Mississippi could have better re-entry programs if they added access to opioid and addiction treatments, helped to link the labor department with prisons to make programs that comply with WIOA – Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act – the federal law that governs labor system.

Gipson’s bill looks at the process of prisoners having their old tickets, fines, and warrants handled before they get out as they often accumulate while they are in prison without their knowledge. Koufos said that the ultimate goal is for people in training to receive industry-recognized credentials so that they can get a job once they are released from prison.

While Koufos now serves as the National Director of Reentry Initiatives for Right on Crime and the Executive Director of the Safe Streets and Second Chance initiatives, but he credits his experiences on both sides of the criminal justice system with where he is today.

“My father was a federal fugitive, my mom a teenage mom and an addict,” Koufous said. “I started drinking at 15 and I would continually drink for 20 years.”

In 2014, Koufos built the New Jersey Reentry Corporation to assist Governor Chris Christie’s nationally recognized leadership and innovation in the opioid crisis. After designing the program Koufos was named Executive Director and worked with the Christie Administration and five former Governors to implement effective evidence-based reentry services. Under his leadership, NJRC grew from a single-location startup to approximately 60 employees in nine program sites.

“This isn’t like a hug a thug program,” Koufos said. “This is smart public safety. I guess I can say that being a felon, but this is smart public safety and smart policy.”

Koufos said he designed NJRC’s nationally recognized legal program, combining staff lawyers with approximately 70 pro bono lawyers to help the reentry community clear old tickets and warrants and restore drivers licenses that lead to jobs because of a personal experience during his time in prison.


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