Imagine being dropped in a city where you have no job or job prospects, no place to live, no credit cards or finances to fall back on, no car (or even current driver’s license), and almost no cash. And then add to that being saddled with the label ex-offender or convicted felon, which severely limits your job or housing prospects. Imagine having missed years of education, job training, establishing credit, saving money, networking. And for years you have not received adequate drug treatment, mental health care, or general health care that you needed. Not only are you ineligible for food stamps, public housing and other safety net programs, but you may also owe the justice system thousands of dollars in fines, fees, costs, penalties, and interest. It is no wonder that most people released from prison quickly reoffend and find themselves right back in the criminal justice system. Even with my educational background and work history, it’s hard to envision successfully navigating reentry after prison alone for more than a few days. And make no mistake – when former prisoners fail, everybody loses: the taxpayers who pay for the incarceration; the person released from prison, who was set up to fail; and the victims of the re-offending crime. There must be a better way.
According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics study tracking reentry of people released from prison in thirty states: more than one-third were rearrested within the first six months and more than half were arrested by the end of their first year. In all, more than three-quarters were re-arrested within five years. If you measure success as keeping former prisoners out of prison, then at least 3 out of 4 people getting rearrested after an incarceration stint is a staggering failure.
As we look at ways to end mass incarceration, we have to find a way to improve reentry, for everyone’s sake. Present programs are woefully inadequate. Upon release, most prisoners receive a set of clothes and some nominal “gate money” to get them started. In Alabama, that means $10 and a bus ticket back to the county of their conviction; in New York, it’s $40 and a return bus ticket; in Illinois, it’s a bus ticket to the parole site and $20-$50 at the prison administrator’s discretion. The real question is how anyone actually manages successful reentry with that minimal assistance.
More than 700,000 people are released from prison each year, while another 9 million people cycle through local jails each year. The level of success of each’s reentry often hinges on access to local reintegration programs, which help with the basics like how to get a job, job training, finding housing, and using community resources.
But more than anything, those of us outside of this vicious incarceration-reentry-reincarceration cycle need to start recognizing the humanity and the vast potential of people released from prison. In a moving brief filed in the Supreme Court, a number of former offenders – convicted of crimes including manslaughter, arson, carjacking, armed robbery, etc. – reminded the Court not to lose sight of people’s rehabilitative potential. The former felons who submitted the brief to the Court had later gone on to become: a Yale graduate and acclaimed actor, a United States Senator, renowned authors and poets, activists, an Assistant United States Attorney, a successful software executive and one of the country’s leading advocates against prison rape, and a UNICEF advocate for children affected by war. These men told the Court that they had each made terrible mistakes, but that they are nonetheless a living, breathing testament to resiliency, adaptability, and rehabilitative potential. If we have any hope of decreasing crime and denting mass incarceration, it is time to invest in that potential.