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Commentary By John H. McWhorter

Crises Of the Ex-Cons

Public Safety Policing, Crime Control

People just out of jail aren’t thinking about what they’re going to major in. Dennis Porter, head of Prodigal Sons, one of the Newark organizations seeking to catch these men before they fall, describes a typical conversation: He asks an ex-con, “If you could be you, the person who is really you, what would you want to do?”

The answer, is “Yo, man, I’m gonna get wit’ you on dat. Nobody ain’t never asked me dat before.”

Multiply this by 1,500: 1,500 ex-offenders back home in Newark each year with no sense of where to go and no tools to get wherever they want to try and go. They’re back in struggling, fragile communities with friends beseeching them to come back to pushing dope on the corners. And next year there’ll be 1,500 more.

All of Newark’s five re-entry programs are staffed by busy, dedicated people. So why is there still an ex-offender crisis?

Civil Rights organizer Bayard Rustin wrote in 1965 that “Every prostitute the Muslims convert to a model of Calvinist virtue, the ghetto replaces with two more.” In the same way, these small-scale organizations can only serve as Band-Aids on a head wound. Mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, and his aides must look at what these groups are doing — and then do it bigger, tighter, and better.

For one, to find out what really works, there needs to be more follow-through. According to numbers of ex-offenders these organizations say they reach, they should have the ex-offender population pretty well covered. Prisoner’s Resource Center says they reach 700 people a year. Offender Aid and Restoration reports giving about 10 people a week a job orientation, which would mean about another 500 a year receive help in finding a job. That alone would mean each year 1,200 ex-offenders are receiving some sort of aid and guidance. If you add to this the people who are getting help from other organizations, the total is close to 1,500.

In reality, though, quite a few are slipping through the cracks. PRC has been in operation since 1975, and OAR since 1984. Yet in 1997, most ex-offenders who had been released three years before were arrested at some point and a third were back behind bars. By the end of 2006, after Mr. Booker’s first six months in office, Newark’s murder rate was the highest it had been in 10 years, and has continued apace in 2007.

These organizations cannot tell us out of the hundreds of people they have worked with who are employed now — nor how many aren’t. Surely this is because they consider helping people in the present a better use of limited resources and small staffs than checking up on hundreds of former clients.

But the fact remains that it is crucial to keep track of people and assess which aid strategies really work in order to keep excons moving ahead and turning the tide against the thousands of them who become part of the warp and woof of Newark life upon their return.

Another problem I saw at one of my visits to the PRC was the attitude of some of these ex-offenders. One of them left after attending an introductory meeting for just 20 minutes and said on his cell phone, “I came here to get a job — that brother’s just up there talking.”

In truth, it would be better if he hadn’t been free to leave. Much of what the head case manager of PRC, Omar Shabazz, was talking about was what it takes to keep a job, not just get one. What would have been even better is if the guy had heard “that brother just up there talking” while he was still in prison.

A program in Allegheny, Penn., gives this kind of in-house assistance to prisoners with mental illnesses and has had only one out of 426 clients go back to prison. While all of these ex-prisoner aid organizations have a certain presence in prisons — Mr. Shabazz speaks at halfway houses — most clients learn of the organizations after their release through an informal web of sources such as word of mouth and flyers.

If Mr. Booker’s administration wants to take re-entry efforts to scale, the entire process of acquiring documentation, rehab treatment, and job referral must begin in prison itself. There is no reason why it shouldn’t.

There are already beginnings of city-wide ex-offender programs. Rutgers’ School of Criminal Justice in Newark holds a biweekly conference of officers, re-entry organization representatives, drug treatment specialists, and employment counselors to track the progress of a slate of clients. These meetings, however, are about only the most violent offenders.

Given Newark’s rates of violence and murder, special attention to the hardest cases makes sense. But this collaborative approach would also benefit the rest of the exoffender population.

Ideally, people just out of prison in Newark should become part of Mr. Booker’s administration’s quest to turn blight into bright. They are a pool of people who, with help, will make the best of a bad hand, pass on what they have learned to their children — and one day be able to ask them what they’d like to major in.

This piece originally appeared in The New York Sun

This piece originally appeared in The New York Sun