January 23, 2007

Reentry program does not reflect U.S. values

Every year, 650,000 Americans are released from prison. After having served their time, they hope to reenter society, trying to reconnect with their families, find jobs, and return to a safe and healthy life. Yet that hope is too often dashed by laws that prevent these former prisoners from voting and finding employment. They find it nearly impossible to secure services like subsidized housing, health care, and childcare. The barriers they face in reentering the community make Hester Prynne look coddled.

It is impossible to squeeze the plethora of structural obstacles to ex-prisoners into a single op-ed. Let us focus on three, not necessarily because they are the most egregious, but because they seem diametrically opposed to the spirit of American law.

First, many former prisoners are denied the right to vote. Nearly four million U.S. citizens are currently disenfranchised. One million of those have fully completed their sentences. Nine million U.S. citizens are disenfranchised, including over 1 million who have fully completed their sentences. But, as with other hardships in America, felony disenfranchisement is not distributed evenly among the American people, but rather falls disproportionately on poor minorities. Thirteen percent of black men are disenfranchised. In Alabama and Florida, 31 percent of all black men are permanently disenfranchised. In five other states, 25 percent of black men are permanently disenfranchised.

This is the result of arcane voting laws dating back to Jim Crow combined with 25 years of racially punitive drug sentencing policies. In effect, we are disenfranchising an entire generation of young black men.

But barriers to returning to civil society do not end in the ballot box. There is conclusive evidence that employment is one of the most correlated factors in whether or not an ex-prisoner returns to prison—what policymakers call recidivism.

Ending recidivism is in many ways the key to addressing reentry because about half of all former prisoners are returned to prison for a new crime or parole violation within three years. The logic is that employment not only provides stability to one’s life, but also that the inability to find a job can often lead ex-prisoners to return to illegal sources of income, such as dealing drugs. However, employers have de facto policies that they will not hire anyone with a conviction.

Finally, former prisoners return to communities that are the least capable of providing them with employment or social services. The Urban Institute, which has pioneered research on this topic, conducted a survey of ex-prisoners returning to Chicago at the end of 2004. They found that the lion’s share of prisoners returned to a small number of Chicago neighborhoods—neighborhoods that are “characterized by high levels of social and economic disadvantage.” Thus, we have ex-prisoners returning to the very communities that cannot offer them the opportunities they need to prevent recidivism.

What does this say about our democracy, let alone our society? Most Americans believe that our criminal justice system exists to punish people who commit crime with time in prison. But with that belief comes the corollary that once you have done your time you can reenter society. Yet for most ex-prisoners, that possibility is blocked by disenfranchisement, employer discrimination, and a lack of opportunities. So we have a situation where American prisoners are locked in a prison during their sentence and locked out of society when they return.

One would assume that our policies toward former prisoners would be founded on the principle of redemption, not recrimination. Yet our policies toward former policies fail to reflect our values. If they did, we would not disenfranchise prisoners once they’ve served their time. We would not bar them from finding a job. And we would not fail to help them get back on their feet when they return to our communities. This is a moral failing of our policies. As a result, we all suffer.