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Commentary By Paul Howard

The End of Fatalism

Public Safety Policing, Crime Control

Policymakers used to think nothing could keep ex-convicts from returning to prison. Welfare reform changed that.

In January 2004 President Bush did something that no other president before him had done. For the first time, in an annual State of the Union Address, the President acknowledged the hundreds of thousands of Americans released from U.S. prisons every year.

“This year,” President Bush told the nation, “some 600,000 inmates will be released from prison back into society. We know from long experience that if they can't find work, or a home, or help, they are much more likely to commit crime and return to prison.”

“America is the land of second chance,” the President concluded, “and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.” The President also called for federal funding for a prisoner re-entry initiative to expand job training and placement, transitional housing, and mentoring for ex-prisoners from community and faith based groups. The President’s optimism contrasted sharply with nearly three decades of pessimism, even nihilism, about the prospects for reducing recidivism and rehabilitating ex-prisoners.

Several trends are powering a renewed national interest—among secular foundations and faith-based groups, in red states and blue ones—in helping prisoners reenter society and stay out of prison.

One trend is academic. In 1974, criminologist Peter Martinson published a landmark article on recidivism and rehabilitation programs in The Public Interest that concluded that “with few and isolated exceptions, the [prison] rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism”.

Martinson’s conclusion later morphed into an assumption by many policymakers that “nothing works” to reduce recidivism, a conclusion that has since been convincingly challenged by scholars like University of California criminologist Joan Petersilia, who concluded that “data from meta-analysis of tens, if not hundreds, of studies confirms that treatment can work to reduce recidivism.”[1]

Another is political: the ascendance of Christian conservatives in national politics. Religious conservatives championing prisoner rehabilitation are driven by biblical narratives of sin and redemption that connect them with traditionally black churches in the inner city. This alliance brings together policymakers like Senators Sam Brownback and Barack Obama, and groups including George Soros’ Open Society and Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship.

Most importantly, it is difficult to overstate the contribution welfare reform has had in reinvigorating urban public policy debates. Welfare rolls have been reduced by over half, and research has repeatedly found that the majority of women and children leaving welfare (particularly among minorities) have benefited from the transition from welfare to work.

Many across the political spectrum now have high hopes for relatively modest policy changes targeted at poor, low-income men, adopting the same “carrot and stick” approach of welfare reform, i.e., by joining targeted benefits with work requirements.

Still, reformers have got their work cut out for them. In the 1980s and early 1990s, when crime and drug related violence seemed to be spiraling out of control, many state policymakers reacted by increasing prison sentences, ending parole programs, funding a prison building boom, and reducing the discretion of judges to shorten prison stays. Ironically, this means that policymakers and corrections officials today have less ability to link services to the ways prisoners actually behave. Today, more prisoners (2.2 million) are held in our nation’s prisons and jails than at any other time in our nation’s history. And the vast majority of them, over 90 percent, are going to be released. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 70 percent of released prisoners will be re-arrested within 3 years of their release and 50 percent will be re-incarcerated.[2]

The problem is particularly acute among low-income African American men with poor educational histories. As of 2004, one in five black men in their twenties who were not in college were incarcerated. By the time they are in their thirties, a staggering six out of ten black men who drop out of school will have served time in prison.

Petersilia notes that there are now more “black men between the ages of 20 and 29” under criminal justice supervision (in prison, parole, or probation) than there are in college. As a result, serving a term in prison has almost become “a normal experience in some poor minority communities.”

The cycle of prison and recidivism is also self-perpetuating. Many prisoners have one or more children out of wedlock, who are themselves at higher risk for dropping out of school and becoming incarcerated. Lifetime earnings of ex-prisoners are substantially lower than for non-prisoners, indicating a limited ability to become productive husbands and fathers.

Returning prisoners tend to be released into a relatively small number of high-crime, low-employment metropolitan areas. For instance, a joint study from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Urban Institute reports that in 2001 about 60 percent of all prisoners released in Maryland returned to Baltimore. Within Baltimore, 30 percent of ex-prisoners returned to just six neighborhoods.

One of the most promising experiments in prisoner rehabilitation, known as Ready4Work (R4W), concluded last September. R4W was a $25 million joint public-private venture. The partnership connected with local businesses to find work for ex-offenders; provided job readiness training and placement; connected men with drug treatment, housing, and other support services; and provided mentoring programs for ex-prisoners, an approach that had been used successfully with juvenile offenders but was relatively untested in adults.

Of the 4,500 ex-prisoners who participated in R4W, most were African American; 80 percent were non-violent offenders, aged 18-34 years old, half of whom had been arrested at least five times; and the average age was twenty-six. Most had spent at least two years in prison.

Although data from the program are still being analyzed, early results have been promising. About 60 percent of R4W participants found a job, with nearly two-thirds of them holding it for three months or longer. A third remained employed for at least six months. These outcomes may sound modest, but are actually impressive considering the population.

Recidivism rates among participants were also 30 percent below the national average. For African Americans in the program, rates were less than half the national average.

There were two key innovations: First, mentoring helps. Men who met with mentors remained in the program longer, were twice as likely to find a job, and were more likely to stay employed than those who did not meet with mentors. (This may have been because about 85 percent of R4W mentors were African American, and half of them were men—allowing them to serve as role models for their younger, less successful counterparts.) Second, close links with the business community are important. More than 800 medium and small businesses hired participants in the program. Having a trusted community group to vouch for prospective employees made hiring ex-prisoners an easier decision—and gave employees an extra incentive to keep their jobs.

Still, the dropout rate in many voluntary reentry programs is high, and many ex-prisoners will refuse services even when they are offered. To make a real dent in recidivism rates, policymakers are going to have to rethink probation and parole.

Conservatives may balk at the idea of routinely offering yet more services to prisoners or shortening sentences for some crimes. Liberals are likely to view the idea of more social controls that disproportionately impact young minority men as racist. But in the end, what matters is efficacy, not symbolism.

If this sounds familiar, it is. It will be a replay of the debate over welfare reform. Hopefully, the outcome will be the same.

This piece originally appeared in The American

This piece originally appeared in The American