Right on Crime’s National Director of Reentry Initiatives John Koufos shared his story of how he became dedicated to prison reform on Freedom to Flourish.
Koufos was a thriving New Jersey attorney that was hiding a battle with alcoholism when he made a life-altering mistake. He drove drunk, hit someone, and ran.
After being sentenced to prison, Koufos became determined to use his time as an opportunity to overcome his addiction and pay for his mistake. He came out of prison sober and ready to make good on his promise. He used his legal background to help other former offenders restore their driver’s licenses and secure identification, which increased their employability. The initiative Koufos ran was so successful, his efforts caught the attention of then New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and the initiative became a state-supported program.
Today Koufos directs Safe Streets and Second Chances (S3C), a project of the Right on Crime initiative at the Texas Public Policy Foundation with support from Koch Industries. Koufos said he hopes S3C helps people like him who may be “on the verge of hurting another person” due to their addiction or seemingly insurmountable circumstances. “If we develop systems that intervene,” he said, “we save the next victim.”
Upon leaving prison, the hurdles to reentering society can range between basic necessities such as securing a form of identification or applying for housing to more complicated needs like mental health or addiction services. To many Americans who question the idea of helping former offenders, Koufos points out there’s an even greater cost of doing nothing. Texas learned this lesson the hard way.
The Lone Star State came to a crossroads in 2007 after spending billions on prisons. It was at that point that then Speaker Tom Craddick told then Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden to find an alternative route. The new route he found was comprised of treatment programs and reentry resources. After a massive overhaul in 2007, Texas has closed eight prisons and saved more than $2 million dollars in correction costs. “The intervention worked better than the lock em’ up mentality because ultimately you have to remember that over 95 percent of this population is coming out one day,” said Koufos, “so how do we want them coming out becomes the question.”
Congress is beginning to catch on.
The FIRST STEP Act, which overwhelmingly passed the U.S. House 360-59, incentivizes participation in rehabilitation programs with the opportunity to gain “earned time” credits. The bill returns the purpose of prison to strengthening public safety by addressing underlying issues that lead people to re-offend. These credits allow reformed offenders to spend pre-release custody time in halfway houses or home confinement, which promotes an overall smoother reentry into society. The bill currently waits to be taken up by the U.S. Senate.
Americans should want all prisoners to leave better than when they came in. That was the case for John Koufos, and now he’s working through S3C to make the same achievement a reality for others.
Watch the full interview here.