Episode 108, with guests Chris Grewe, Peter Hamby and Dave Catanese, with guest host Jeff Smith

Chris Grew, Peter Hamby and Dave Catanese are our guests this week.
With guest host: New School Professor and former Missouri Senator Jeff Smith
Show produced by Katherine Caperton.
Original Air Date: June 29, 2013 on SiriusXM “POTUS” Channel 124.
PoliOptics airs regularly on POTUS on Saturdays at 6 am, 12 noon and 6 pm.
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This is Jeff Smith filling in for Josh this week.

We’ll be talking about two disparate topics with one big thing in common: optics are critical in both areas.

First, we talk prison reform with Chris Grewe, founder and CEO of American Prison Data Systems (APDS), which leverages digital technology to help prepare inmates for the outside world. After the break, we welcome Peter Hamby of CNN and Dave Catanese of The Run 2016 to discuss how recent events – from SCOTUS decisions and national security controversies to immigration reform – affect the strategic calculus of 2016 presidential wannabes.

* * *

Back in 2007, as a new Missouri senator learning about the state budget, I was shocked to learn that the state spent nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars on corrections. When I asked our state’s Department of Corrections about their budget, I learned that sky-high recidivism rates –2 of every 3 inmates released re-offended within three years – were the primary cost driver. Why were rates so high? I asked. Once people got a taste of prison, why did so many come back? I spent the next few years focusing my legislative efforts on both the front end (60% of kids in my hometown failed to graduate high school) and back end (ways to ease prisoner re-entry and reduce recidivism) of this problem.

By the end of 2010 – most of which I spent in federal prison on obstruction of justice charges – I was, unfortunately, far better equipped to answer these questions.

Due to the runaway growth in the nation’s prison population, over 650,000 inmates are now released each year. They return to communities where they have failed before – now with the added complication of prison records. The idea of applying for legitimate work can seem laughable when selling drugs – something most have experience doing – pays far more than flipping burgers.

Research has shown that GED completion can cut recidivism rates in half, while high-quality vocational and business training can reduce rates even more severely, potentially generating vast savings. Although many states (and the federal government) advertise specialized educational and vocational programs, prison administrators and correctional officers’ commitment to programmatic success varies widely, leading to uneven implementation. For instance, the sole vocational opportunity offered during my time at Manchester FCI was a three-week hydroponics course in which inmates learned to grow tomatoes in water.

Fortunately, social entrepreneurs are working to fill this void. One of them is Chris Grewe of APDS, which provides tablet computers equipped with a suite of educational and vocational software to inmates. Given the dearth of technology to which inmates have access, prisons have never had a safe and affordable way to provide this type of material and instruction. Now, tablet computing offers a scalable way to deliver it – while also helping prisons eliminate cost centers such as law libraries through digitization. (New York alone has saved $2.3 million annually by moving this material online.) Moreover, tablets could increase prison security by significantly reducing the items sent in to prison, and thus cutting opportunities to introduce contraband.

As Chris explains on this week’s show, if policymakers don’t rethink prison, inmates won’t learn any new practical skills to help them get back on their feet post-release. They’ll just learn new hustles – and they’ll probably return within a few years.

* * *

After the break, we talk with two of political journalism’s rising stars, CNN’s Peter Hamby and The Run 2016’s Dave Catanese about the way recent events – from landmark Supreme Court decisions and NSA surveillance controversies to comprehensive immigration reform – are already scrambling the next presidential race.

Hamby, who recently completed the spring term as a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, has recently focused on dramatic changes to the media landscape during the 2012 presidential cycle. Hamby points out that – notwithstanding the Texts From Hillary meme created by two people unaffiliated with Clinton – neither Clinton nor anyone in her orbit has demonstrated a strong facility with the new media terrain. Hamby also observed that the public seems to be gravitating towards less packaged, more “authentic” – or at least, packaged to seem more authentic – candidates, and opines that Clinton hyper-cautious 2008 campaign of may not be suited to the current environment. Fresh off a trip to the progressive Netroots Nation conference, Hamby notes that while most attendees mentioned Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean received a bigger applause than President Obama, and ignited a firestorm of speculation when declined to rule out a second White House bid.

Catanese, whose new inside-baseball blog is dominating coverage of the 2016 race, agrees that Dean has some running room to Clinton’s left and that Clinton has likely already peaked, noting that the same “inevitability” which plagued her last bid could hinder a future one as well. Looking over the Republican contenders, Catanese and Hamby suggest that Rand Paul is trying to be too many things to too many different groups, indicating that he may not be quite ready for prime time. They agree that, despite Washington politicians and pundits generally overlooking him, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is the Republican field’s dark horse to watch.

They also agree that – despite landmark court decisions on gay and civil rights that have roiled Republican waters and an immigration bill that splits party elites from the activist base – it’s too soon to tell which direction the party will go on the very hot-button cultural issues they wielded so deftly to divide Democrats just a decade ago. And that’s just one reason that the looming clash of philosophies – through the prism of the presidential primary process – will be so fascinating to watch.

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