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Nathan Newman on March 5, 2007 - 9:46am
Nearly 650,000 people are released from state and federal prison every year, with larger numbers reentering communities from local jails. Over 50 percent of those released from incarceration are sent back to prison for a parole violation or new crime within 3 years.
It's tough enough for ex-prisoners to reintegrate into society, but a number of state actions have historically made it worse, from failing to provide training, cutting off housing aid and food stamps for those with drug felonies, and allowing employers to deny jobs to people solely because of a criminal record, regardless of individual work histories. The costs of failed reintegration ripple outward to the community, both in increased taxes to pay for reincarceration but also to family members, since over half of the adults incarcerated in state and federal prisons are the parents of minor children.
In 2004, the Legal Action Center created a report card for each state listing barriers to reentry for all fifty states-- with New York having the fewest barriers to reentry of ex-prisoners and Colorado having the worst barriers. While changes in some state laws may have shifted rankings a bit since then, the criterion used are good guides for states looking to reduce roadblocks to reentry.
This Dispatch will explore both the problems faced by former prisoners seeking to reenter society and some of the newer innovative state programs that are beginning to make that challenge easier. With America already spending over $60 billion per year on prisons, it is a costly mistake not to take action to reduce recidivism and reclaim ex-prisoners as contributing members of society.
Retraining & Employment
Post-release training and employment is a critical factor in the successful reentry of prisoners into society. Work after release not only provides former prisoners with an income but also an integration into society that prevents recidivism.
Lack of Training in Prisons: Unfortunately, most prisoners receive no employment readiness or help lining up employment after they leave custody. In a study by the Urban Institute in 2003, only one-third of prisoners in Illinois and Maryland, one quarter in Virginia, 6 percent in New Jersey, and only 1 percent in Georgia received employment readiness or vocational training. Yet recidivisim rates of those involved in prison educational and vocational programs were 20 to 60 percent lower than nonparticipants. Some states have improved their programs since that study, but the problem remains stark.
Need for More Job Placement: Helping people find jobs once they leave prison is as important as training, since again research shows that finding work is a key factor in preventing recidivism, with ex-prisoners who are unemployed after release ending up reincarcerated at far higher rates.
Innovative Programs: In recent years, a number of states have been promoting more innovative programs to encourage prisoner training and employment post-release:
- Illinois Senate Bill 1279 - Creates income tax credits for wages paid to eligible offenders. The credit amount is set at 25% of the federal work opportunity credit for wages paid to eligible offenders.
- VA: Virginia House Bill 691- Requires that each prisoner receive documents upon discharge that verify the prisoner's work history while in custody and verifies all educational and treatment programs completed by the prisoner.
- A few programs like the Bard Prison Initiative are developing models for restoring higher education programs to state prisons-- programs largely eliminated after Pell Grants were barred for prisoners by federal law in the 1990s.
Restoring Economic Supports: In many cases, former prisoners rapidly become homeless, creating a cycle of instability and desperation that often leads back to prison. Multiple studies show that as many as 50 percent of parolees in some metropolitan areas become homeless, with one New York City study finding that more than 30 percent of single adults seeking city-provided shelter were recently parolees.
Federal law allows states discretion as to whether to bar those with drug felony convictions from receiving TANF, food stamps and other public assistance-- and most states have now modified the absolute ban on support contained as the default rule in federal law, but remaining restrictions still undermine successful reentry for many former prisoners.
Maine and Ohio have created model statutes for states opting out of the federal ban on those with drug felony convictions receiving food stamps or TANF family aid. There are also a number of good models for improving housing opportunities for former prisoners.
Rebuilding Family Networks: Beyond economic help, states need to do more to rebuild family networks for prisoners. Most states don't do a great job in incorporating families into the reentry process, but new programs are beginning to see families as an important resource for reintegrating prisoners back into their communities and the workforce.
- A number of states like Oregon start reentry programs with families in the community months before a prisoner is released.
- Maryland’s Re-entry Partnership Initiative requires attendance by the returning family member and family at a community conference within 72 hours of release.
- Utah’s probation and parole officers conduct mandatory orientation sessions for men and women under supervision shortly after release, but the officers strongly encourage family and friends to attend.
Families provide not just emotional support, but child care services for children and networks to help ex-prisoners find new jobs.
Ending Employment Discrimination of Ex-Prisoners
Even if former prisoners get all the training, economic and family support available, they still have to overcome pervasive discrimination of both private employers and, in many cases, hiring rules established by state governments themselves. Licensing rules for many professions limit job opportunities for former prisoners, while a range of employers are increasingly using criminal background checks to reject anyone convicted of a crime, and reject anyone arrested for a crime, even if they were never convicted.
Recognizing the problem, states have created a number of models to limit this discrimination against former prisoners:
- A number of states in recent years, including Illinois, Kansas, Virginia and Washington, have established commissions to examine the barriers faced by ex-offenders in obtaining employment and overcoming other challenges to reentry.
- New York is considered to have the best legal language prohibiting inquires by employers about arrests that never led to a conviction.
- States such as Hawaii, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have good laws setting standards that limit how employers can discriminate against ex-offenders in hiring situations.
- Another approach is to allow Boards of Corrections or other bodies to issue Certificates of Rehabilitation that essentially expunges public criminal records for prisoners who have rehabilitated themselves. Just in recent years, Connecticut HB 5846 created a "provisional pardon" to relieve an ex-prisoner of licensing bars to employment or discrimination by a private employer, and Oregon provided for the right to have a criminal record expunged or sealed. Individuals then usually have the legal right to answer "no" to any questions on a job application that inquire about a history of arrests or criminal convictions.
- Illinois and Delaware both recently passed laws requiring that the refusal, revocation or suspension of a professional or occupational license based on a criminal conviction be limited to those crimes that are "substantially related to" the profession or occupation.
Each of these provisions increases the chance that ex-offenders have a chance to make a new life after paying his or her debt to society.
Reintegration to Public Life - Restoring Voting Rights
One last factor that assists in reentry is restoring voting rights to ex-offenders. While causality is always hard to establish, research has indicated a link between ex-prisoners voting and lower recidivism rates. One study showed that ex-prisoners who vote were half as likely to be rearrested as non-voting ex-prisoners.
The American Correctional Association, made up largely of professionals in the criminal justice field, passed a resolution at its Winter 2004 convention stating that restoring voting rights was critical to reintegration of ex-prisoners into public life:
[T]he loss of the right to vote does not serve any rehabilitative function; and...disenfranchisement laws work against the successful reentry of offenders as responsible, productive citizens into the community.
And voters agree with this viewpont, with polls showing as many as 80% of the public believing that voting rights should be restored for ex-offenders. Rhode Island voters last November approved a referendum restoring full voting rights to people with felony convictions upon release from prison, joining 16 states that since 1997 have implemented policy reforms that have reduced felony disenfranchisement restrictiveness.
The tragedy is that our states spend billions each year locking people up, but often refuse to spend the much smaller resources needed to help ex-offenders successfully reintegrate into society and avoid the societal costs of reincarceration. Luckily, states are increasingly making reentry programs a priority and helping to remove the barriers to employment and reintegration faced by ex-prisoners.