Prisoner Reentry

Are state governments doing enough to help prisoners reenter society?

Below is an excerpt from the CQ Researcher issue on "Prisoner Reentry" By Peter Katel, December 4, 2009

The basic argument for expanding reentry programs is simple: Virtually all prisoners will be released except those serving life sentences without the possibility of parole or facing execution. But if at least half of them will be returning to prison or jail, reducing that number by helping ex-prisoners gain a foothold in the outside world would be good for them — and for society.

Supporters of expanded reentry programs point out that even as state governments face budgetary strains ranging from serious to catastrophic, they can cut long-term prison costs by spending on reentry instead of on prison space, which is more expensive. States spend an average of $22,650 yearly to maintain one prisoner. [Footnote 11]

However, to make that case to state legislatures, advocates must show hard data on which kinds of reentry programs lower recidivism most effectively. But solid numbers only now are being assembled and reported. Recidivism among New York's CEO program participants, for instance, was 5.7 percent lower over a three-year period than in a control group of ex-prisoners not in the program.

But even without precise statistics on which kinds of programs are most effective, plenty of evidence shows approaches that don't work, say reentry program advocates.

For example, California imposes parole supervision on virtually all released prisoners — but doesn't have money for intensive supervision. The result: 66 percent of ex-prisoners returned to prison in 2003–2004 — compared with a national rate of 40 percent at that time. Two-thirds of those sent back to prison had violated parole conditions, according to a recent Justice Department study, which showed a dearth of reentry services.

“It is estimated that two-thirds or more of all California parolees have substance-abuse problems, and nearly all of them are required to be drug tested,” the study's authors reported. “Yet few of them will participate in appropriate treatment while in prison or on parole.” [Footnote 12]

Former prison inmate and California Republican state legislator Pat Nolan, now vice president of Prison Fellowship, a Christian rehabilitation group, calls the combination of newly released prisoners with drug problems and a near-absence of treatment programs “one of the great scandals of our current California prison system.” [Footnote 13]

Nolan argues that the rigid enforcement of parole conditions such as no drug use means that ex-prisoners get sent back for relatively minor offenses. “Drug possession — bam, you take them [back] to prison,” he says. “This guy can have a job, be supporting his family; he shouldn't use drugs, but do you want to disrupt his life, send him back to prison, for a first [parole] offense?”

But some prison system veterans say more reentry programs won't necessarily produce ex-prisoners better prepared to reenter society. “You can't make someone rehabilitate himself,” says Gary B. King, a 19-year veteran of the Florida Corrections Department, one of the country's biggest prison agencies. “Over the years, what I have seen as the most rehabilitative thing we do is when we hold people accountable for their actions; when an inmate commits an infraction we apply administrative sanctions. The more we make them follow the rules while they're in prison, and do that across the board, the more we prepare them for going back into society.”

King is now a classification officer who supervises individual prisoners' disciplinary records, progress reports and participation in educational or other programs at Columbia Correctional Institute, a medium-security institution near Lake City, Fla. He doubts a stronger emphasis on rehabilitation and reentry would make a big dent in Florida's recidivism rate. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that work-release programs do make sense for some prisoners nearing the end of their sentences, so they can experience the very different world outside prison. “Some inmates inside an institutional setting can do very well because their daily schedule is regimented, and they are quarantined from bad behavior and substance abuse,” he says. “Once at liberty to do as they please and associate with whomever they please, they do not do well. Some inmates do not seem to handle well the responsibility that comes with freedom.”

Yet even Crist, the conservative Republican Florida state senator, argues that the slim chances some prisoners have of staying out of trouble after release shouldn't block the state from expanding reentry programs for inmates who could benefit. “About one-third of the inmate population are hardened; you're going to have very little impact on them,” he says. “Another two-thirds [deserve] a running chance.”

Moreover, some prisoners with violent pasts may do well on the outside. “Somebody can go to prison with a first-degree felony and serve time and have an excellent track record and go through psychological testing and work release and have an excellent chance in the community,” he says.

But some conservative experts who support reentry expansion on principle question how well helping hardcore prisoners reenter can be carried out in practice. “We don't know a lot about what works,” says David B. Mulhausen, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation's Center for Data Analysis. “Usually, the impact is rather small, and other communities haven't always been successful in replicating it.”

Moreover, Mulhausen is skeptical about what he views as the political leanings of reentry advocates. “A lot of people [favoring] reentry programs really don't like prison,” he says. “They don't give credit to the fact that the drop in crime we've had in the past several years is partly due to incarceration.”

But the Sentencing Project, the leading alternatives-to-incarceration organization, says that while imprisonment plays a role in the drop in crime, that role may be smaller than Mulhausen and others assert. Crime dropped by about 12 percent in 1998–2003 in states with high imprisonment — and declined by the same rate in states in which incarceration diminished or stayed the same.

“There was no discernible pattern of states with higher rates of incarceration experiencing more significant declines in crime,” project staffers wrote. [Footnote 14]

The Issues:
* Are state governments doing enough to help prisoners reenter society?
* Should government or private organizations provide subsidized jobs for ex-prisoners?
* Do reentry programs significantly reduce recidivism?

[11] James J. Stephan, “State Prison Expenditures, 2001,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Justice Department, June 2004.
[12] Ryken Grattet, et al., “Parole Violations and Revocations in California: Analysis and Suggestions for Action,” Federal Probation, June 2009, pp. 2–4.
[13] Jennifer Warren, “He found a calling in prison,” Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2007, p. A1.
[14] Ryan S. King, et al., “Incarceration and Crime: A Complex Relationship,” Sentencing Project, 2005, pp. 3–4.


For more information see the CQ Researcher report on "Prisoner Reentry" [subscription required] or purchase the CQ Researcher PDF