Monday, March 5, 2007
In Today's Dispatch:
Ex-Prisoner Reentry and Reintegration
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:
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.
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:
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.
Urban Institute and Annie E. Casey Foundation, Mapping Prisoner Reentry: An Action Research Guidebook 
Urban Institute, Select Prisoner Reentry Publications 
Re-entry Policy Council, Fact Sheets 
General Legislative Resources
November Coalition, Prisoner Re-Entry Legislation & Reports 
Legal Action Center, After Prison: Roadblocks to Reentry- A Report on State Legal Barriers Facing People with Criminal Records  (2004)
Legal Action Network, Advocacy Toolkits to Combat Legal Barriers Facing Individuals with Criminal Records 
Legal Action Network, Funding Streams Available to Assist People with Criminal Records 
National H.I.R.E. Network, State and Local Advocacy 
Training and Jobs
Urban Institute, Employment and Reentry 
Illinois Senate Bill 1279 - tax credits for employers hiring ex-offenders
Virginia House Bill 691 - providing clear documentation for ex-prisoners of their educational, vocational and job training experience while in prison
Economic and Family Support
Legal Action Network, Improving Housing Opportunities for Individuals with Conviction Records 
GAO, the Government Accounting Office, Drug Offenders: Various Factors May Limit the Impact Of Federal Laws That Provide For Denial Of Selected Benefits 
Reentry Roundtable, From Prison to Work: The Employment Dimensions of Prisoner Reentry 
Model NY Laws, Prohibiting Inquires About Arrests that Never Led to Conviction 
Model State Laws (HI, KS, NY, PA, WI), Standards for Employing People with Criminal Records 
H.I.R.E. Network's Model Legislation, Using Certificates of Rehabilitation 
Restoring Voting Rights
Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza, Voting and Subsequent Crime and Arrest: Evidence from a Community Sample 
Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza, Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy 
The Sentencing Project, A Decade of Reform 
Brennan Center for Justice, Voting After Criminal Convinction 
Demos, Felon Re-Enfranchisement 
Eye on the Right
The Conservative Political Action Conference  was in DC last week, and from all accounts it was a wild time. Our friends at People for the American Way  crashed the party  and lived to tell the tales. From the usual denials for global warming, to a dolphin-suit-clad protest of Mitt Romney's flipping and flopping, and of course the all-to-expected call from Ann Coulter to execute such and such liberal. You know the group isn't a voice for the mainstream when Rep. Duncan Hunter draws one of the larger crowds. In the end, it seems the convention has taken the term "media circus" a bit to literally, but we're glad PFAW was there to documents this Barnum and Buckley show.
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