Thinking beyond prisoner reform to reintegration

Thinking beyond prisoner reform to reintegration
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Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Next Step Act on March 7, an expansion of the criminal justice reform started with December’s First Step Act. We applaud the Next Step Act for essential reforms, including reducing mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses.

Reversing the harms that have been created by decades of mass incarceration and an overly punitive and racially-biased criminal justice system requires more than reversing past policy mistakes.

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Reform should go beyond shrinking prisons to providing those whose lives have been impacted by mass incarceration with real opportunities that lead to reintegration into society after release. The Next Step Act is a critical step toward that end, and even more can be done

Consider Randall, one of our research subjects, who returned home from prison to Detroit at age 32 with a ninth-grade education. He drifted between various shelters, treatment programs and couches for two years as he remained unemployed despite applying for over 50 jobs.

Randall’s story illustrates that reintegration requires more than just determination and work ethic, a key finding of our three-year study of the day-to-day lives of formerly incarcerated individuals. About a third struggle with hunger, homelessness and housing instability.

Chronic physical and mental health problems are also common. Jobs are scarce for those with criminal records, who disproportionately move into communities like Detroit with high unemployment. Half of those released from prison return within three years.

The period immediately after release is both a time of great risk and an opportunity to ensure that each person starts with a strong foundation of health and material security.

This “re-entry moment” is one of optimism, commitment to a new life and family support, but also a critical time of struggle with hunger, homelessness, employment and sobriety. Investments in housing, health and employment services during the re-entry moment can create that foundation.

The Next Step Act contains worthy provisions for removing barriers to employment, including certain occupational licensing barriers for those with criminal records. Yet our research shows that securing a job is only part of the reason for low rates of employment after release.

Education is essential to improving reintegration into the labor force. Formerly incarcerated workers experience high rates of job turnover, in part because that is common in the low-skill jobs they find. To improve employment for those like Randall, we should empower more community colleges to offer prison education with a seamless transition into community programs.

Time in prison can be better used to prepare for release. Research shows that intensive treatment and prison education programs reduce recidivism, and incarcerated individuals are eager to take part in them. Yet too many prisoners sit idle during their time in prison or engage in make-work jobs like cleaning and gardening. 

The families of those returning home from prison are most motivated to support the reintegration of their loved ones, but because most are poor, they are often overwhelmed by that burden.

While Booker’s Next Step Act improves family reunification by reducing the costs of prison phone calls, much more should be done.

Existing programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, housing assistance programs and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program should be reformed so that families supporting reintegration are eligible for greater benefits. 

Finally, while federal reform efforts are important both for federal prisoners and because of the leadership role the federal government can play, only 12 percent of prisoners are in federal prisons. Truly wide-reaching national reform also requires the federal government to incentivize states and localities to change.

The Next Step Act includes national-level reforms such as legalizing marijuana and restoring voting rights, but the federal government can do more to help states promote reintegration.

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Just as the federal government supports local efforts in education, health care and policing, it can support state and local reintegration efforts through funding, technical support and evaluation of promising programs. 

Can we afford to support reintegration? Each federal prisoner costs almost $32,000 a year, and in some states that figure is over $80,000. The money saved by reducing imprisonment can create a virtuous cycle if it is reinvested in reintegration, which will result in fewer people returning to prison. 

In the three years after his release, Randall had one minor scrape with the law but never returned to prison. He eventually found a stable home with family and landed a job as a line cook.

A burgeoning movement of formerly incarcerated people like Randall is providing support to those recently released and leading advocacy efforts for change. Investing in reintegration will direct the savings from justice reform to the communities most harmed by decades of over-punishment. 

David J. Harding is professor of sociology at UC, Berkeley. Jeffrey D. Morenoff is professor of sociology at University of Michigan. Jessica J. Wyse is research assistant professor at the Oregon Health & Science University — Portland State University School of Public Health. They are the authors of "On the Outside: Prisoner Reentry and Reintegration" (University of Chicago Press, 2019).