The problem of prison overcrowding is a powder keg in many states; indeed, a California judge ruled recently that the state’s correctional system had to reduce its prison population by half. Prisoner advocates and others have suggested that correctional systems can reduce the number of prisoners through “reentry” efforts—services that help ex-offenders obtain jobs, find housing, and generally get on the right path in life, so that they won’t reoffend and wind up back in prison. States and localities are listening; the question is how best to go about it.
Certainly reentry presents enormous challenges, both for ex-cons trying not to reoffend and for communities trying to include them. Many ex-offenders return to the same urban areas where they committed crimes—without any money in their pockets beyond transportation fare—and these cities often don’t have the infrastructure or capacity to offer the range of services that people need to stay out of prison. Communication about funding allocations and ex-offenders’ needs can be poor among state, county, and local authorities and service providers. Most communities struggle to establish a coherent central entity that can provide a comprehensive map of services and hold various agencies accountable for funding and performance. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that in many cities, 65 percent or more of ex-cons reoffend within two years.
If it’s true that every crisis presents an opportunity, then the opportunity here is for local and state elected officials to strike while the issue of reentry is gaining some traction. Mayors in particular, who have local accountability but little authority over reentry dollars, must push for change. That change should include setting up systems so that local providers, parole agencies, and police share information about ex-offenders and the social services provided to them. As a recent study by the research organization MDRC shows, the most promising step for preventing recidivism is immediate engagement in structured programs centered on work. Thus, social services for ex-offenders should offer real job-placement and retention programs—and the service providers should get paid only for successful outcomes. In the case of reentry services for ex-offenders on parole within the first six months of release, parole officers should be rewarded for their clients’ successful reentry. In some systems, parole officers view themselves as solely law-enforcement officials; a reward system would broaden their understanding of their work to include job placement and family reunification.
Where public dollars get spent, mayors or other key leaders must decide what’s best for the clients in these programs, not what’s best for politically favored organizations in the social-services sector. Showing such discipline has proven a challenge for even the best leaders. And mayors or high-ranking officials should carefully (and publicly) set up a performance-measurement system to guide their efforts. Finally, local leaders should complement social services with sensible legislative ideas of their own, such as lifting outdated laws that limit fair opportunities for ex-offenders to get jobs upon release; helping ex-offenders get access to entitlement-funded programs; and providing reasonable ways for ex-offenders to pay off debts and address outstanding warrants.
Corrections officials understand that prisons and reentry services need reform. Some people, they say, are simply “bad”; others “we are just mad at.” This second group can succeed at much higher rates in our communities and avoid joining the “bad” group. It will take leadership, especially at the local level, to find them jobs, to help connect employers with good workers, and to help ex-offenders develop healthy parental and familial relationships. But if done properly, good reentry programs can reduce crime and recidivism and increase local economic viability.