Emphasis On Reentry

Emphasis On Reentry

More than half a million people are released from prison every year. Roughly three-quarters of them end up back in prison in just five years. The lesson from these statistics should be apparent: the U.S. prison system has a reentry problem.

After spending time in prison, the incarceration machine forces individuals to reenter society with virtually no preparation, assistance or resources. Their criminal record makes it harder to find employment, housing and social services.

Folks often debate whether the purpose of prison should be punishment, deterrence or both. But, regardless of which one you settle on, we should all be able to agree that the purpose shouldn’t be putting people on a path toward coming back to prison. There should be more to it than that. More meaningful incarceration, coupled with the skills and resources need upon reentry, can make prison a more impactful experience for everyone—for prisoners, for loved ones and for communities.

This means ending mass incarceration. It means improving the conditions of prisons. It also means emphasizing rehabilitation, education and treatment. And it means decriminalizing mental illness.

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Challenges After Release

For employment, former prisoners often have trouble finding and then keeping steady employment. This is usually attributable to employers’ reluctance to hire individuals with criminal records. But it can also be due to a gap in education and work experience, state laws permitting discrimination against folks charged with a crime and more. This ordinarily leads to folks accepting low-skill, high-turnover positions that almost always come with low wages and no opportunities for advancement. With limited opportunities and limited resources, recidivism is all but a certainty.

When it comes to housing, the problems can be even worse. Individuals often leave prison without sufficient resources to rent an apartment. Then, even if they do, private market rental housing associations frequently have policies against leasing to applicants with criminal records. And making matters worse, public housing is almost always unavailable because a drug or felony conviction automatically makes you ineligible. Homelessness, then, is almost inevitable. And recidivism doesn’t show its ugly face long after that.

Finally, individuals reentering society face obstacles in accessing the very public services that are designed to help folks in need. A majority of U.S. states prohibit individuals with drug-related and felony convictions for receiving public assistance and food stamps. This is true even when someone successfully completes their sentence, overcomes their addiction or achieves complete rehabilitation. Without any public assistance, released prisoners have no choice but to accept the low-skill, high-turnover employment, and the recidivism cycle continues one way or another.

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Ending Mass Incarceration

By the end of 2019, nearly 1.5 million people were in prison in the United States. That means there’s the same amount of people in U.S. prisons as there is in major cities like Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Diego, and Dallas. And it’s significantly more than cities like San Francisco, Charlotte, Seattle, Denver, Washington DC, Boston, Detroit, and more.

Yet these statistics are even worse when you consider everyone currently detained in the U.S. criminal justice system. When state and federal prisons are considered with juvenile detention centers, jails, immigration detention facilities, Indian Country jails, military prisons, psychiatric hospitals, and others, the number rises to almost 2.3 million. Stated simply, the U.S. has a mass incarceration problem.

What makes matters even worse is that most of these people haven’t even been convicted of a crime. Some have just been arrested and will be released on bail. Others are too poor to afford bail and will sit behind bars until their trial—a wait that can last months. And, even if folks put in jail can get released, approximately one out of every four of them will go back to jail within the same year. This is often because they’re dealing with challenges that get even worse because of incarceration like poverty, mental illness or substance abuse.

Despite many people being aware of the significant amount of people sitting in prisons in the U.S., misinformation continues to plague reform efforts. Some folks believe that releasing non-violent drug offenders will end mass incarceration. Others fault things like private prisons or low-wage (or even no-wage) prison labor. Many others simply think that the vast majority of prisoners are simply too dangerous to be released.

Some of these concerns are undoubtedly valid. There are non-violent people sitting in prisons across the country. There are also fundamental flaws when it comes to private prisons and forced prison labor. And some prisoners would be dangerous if they were released. But the U.S. mass incarceration problem goes even deeper than that.

Interrogating Justice aims to help people like you understand those fundamental problems. But it also seeks to put the resources that attorneys, advocates and allies need in their hands to solve the problems, too.

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Emphasizing Rehabilitation

Over the past few decades, incarceration rates around the world have been on the rise. That’s especially true in the United States, which is home to one quarter of the world’s prison population. While mass incarceration may reduce crime, though, that outcome can’t be the end of how we analyze its practice. Locking up so many people — even in the name of crime prevention — has consequences. And those consequences come with a price. Unfortunately, when prison sentences don’t emphasize rehabilitation, that price devastates communities across the country.

The United States’ “Tough on Crime” Policy

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, crime rates surged in the U.S. In response, the country got “tough on crime.” Government officials stepped up their police presence. They increased the amount of arrests. And then made prison sentences longer. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 314,000 people in U.S. prisons in 1979. Now? More than two million.

In general, the U.S.’s mass incarceration has worked. Compared to 50 years ago, our communities are safer than they were before. But the consequences of the “tough on crime” policies come with a cost. The cost of incarceration—both financially and societally—are clear.

Housing one prisoner for a year costs anywhere from $10,000 (in a low-security facility with modestly paid corrections officers) to in excess of $100,000 (in maximum-security facilities with high-salary prison officials). As of 2010, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated nationwide prison spending to be approximately $50 billion per year. This means every household contributes around $500 to the American prison machine.

But these are only the financial costs that are apparent on the surface. Dig beyond them, and you realize how much deeper the costs of mass incarceration truly go. Putting two million people behind bars dramatically impacts the U.S. labor force. People removed from their communities also face challenges in maintaining important personal relationships and can leave their parents, children and others behind, which, in turn, correlates to more criminal involvement.

“Tough on Crime” Requires Rehabilitation

Perhaps most importantly, these “tough on crime” mass incarceration policies don’t necessarily lead to rehabilitation. Although recidivism has declined recently (a trend that is likely more attributable to reentry programs than to incarceration itself), most research shows that almost half of the people released from prison will return to prison within three years. Without an emphasis on rehabilitation, it’s difficult not to worry that rising incarceration numbers may lead to rising recidivism numbers as well.

These rehabilitation efforts can come in several different forms. The most common examples include educational and vocational training. These rehabilitation programs address challenges facing the vast majority of prisoners. Most notably, nearly three-quarters of inmates haven’t graduated from high school. Implementing evidence-based prison programming — to provide prisoners opportunities to gain knowledge and grow their skills — is crucial. It enables these individuals to successfully reenter society and be better equipped to avoid the pitfalls that often snare former prisoners in their communities.

Substance abuse treatment services also have the potential to make a significant impact on the lives of inmates and their loved ones. According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, approximately 80%of prisoners in the U.S. committed a crime because of substance abuse. Helping these individuals address their substance abuse issues has the potential to drastically reduce recidivism rates as well.

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Decriminalizing Mental Illness

It’s impossible to talk about the U.S.’s mass incarceration problem without talking about mental illness. And the need to decriminalize mental illness in the U.S. couldn’t be clearer.

Incarcerating People with Mental Illness

Officials book nearly two million people suffering from mental illnesses into jail each year. The identities of these two million people shouldn’t make a difference. But you can’t overlook the fact that this number includes thousands of veterans suffering from PTSD. It also includes parents, children and other loved ones suffering from depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

In fact, people suffering from a mental illness are significantly more likely to end up behind bars than in a psychiatric hospital. In 44 states, jails and prisons hold more mentally ill individuals than those states’ largest psychiatric hospital. As a result of statistics like these, individuals with psychiatric diseases like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder find themselves ten times more likely to go to prison than to a mental health facility.

Police Interaction with Mental Illness

But the amount of Americans suffering from mental illnesses in prisons only reflects part of the problem. These statistics only address the problem in prisons. They don’t encompass the problems that accompany how these individuals first got behind bars, which are arguably even worse. People with mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed during an encounter with police than other members of the general public. Yet recent reports suggest that police officers spend approximately 20% of their time responding to mental health crises.

Thankfully, state and local governments across the country are taking steps to limit the amount of these potentially lethal interactions. Programs like CAHOOTS in Oregon and RIGHT CARE in Texas intentionally move away from police-led responses to mental health crises. Instead, officials send medical professionals to be the first point of contact at the scene. Programs like these are only first steps though. And there are many more steps — steps at the national, state and local levels — that officials must take toward decriminalizing mental illness in the U.S.

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