Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Prisoner Reentry

Dean Trulear


April 13, 2007

In December 2000, then President-elect George Bush met with faith leaders from across the country to discuss his plans for working with the faith community. He distributed his ideas for the types of programs he wanted to support through his soon-to-be established Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives. Topping his list was "prisoner reentry."

Interesting, given the rising tide of crime and violence we witnessed in 2006. That was the year when we were told to expect the largest number of men and women returning from prison in the nation's history. Clearly, we were not ready for such a massive influx of ex-prisoners, any more than we were ready to deal with all who are moving through the revolving doors of our city and county jails unprepared for life in our communities.

The numbers are startling. From 1980 through 2000, the number of persons returning from incarceration nearly doubled. In that same period, the number of ex-offenders being released in the state of Maryland, for example, increased from 5,436 to 9,448. Seventy percent of those being released had been incarcerated at least once before. Nationwide, an estimated 630,000 ex-offenders (1,700 per day) were released from state and federal prisons compared to the 150,000 being released thirty years ago. Yet knowing these numbers and intending to address the situation, the president's plans went amiss. Why?

Some of the fault lies with those who opposed the faith-based initiative where much of the focus on reentry was to occur. We can also point to a shift away from domestic policy initiatives in the wake of 9/11. And some of us are also to blame for our lack of concern; after all, few released prisoners come to our neighborhoods. For example, 80 percent of New York State's inmates come from only seven neighborhoods in New York City.

What we do know is that without purposeful intervention by those who care, those who return from incarceration are more likely to return to criminal behavior. Research and experience show that several key factors are most likely to improve ex-offenders' opportunities for successful reentry.

First, prisoner reentry preparation should begin at sentencing. The overwhelming majority of inmates in America will come home, including those with long-term sentences. Supports and resources must be available long before an individual is released.

Second, ex-offenders need somewhere to live. Sanctions against those with criminal convictions often include housing restrictions that deny them access to housing where they lived with family prior to incarceration.

Third, these persons need employment. Job training and readiness need to be in place both during and after incarceration. Sanctions at the state level bar returning persons from many professions; we need to ask whether those policies are just.

Fourth, there are crucial educational needs. Studies have demonstrated the critical link between increased educational opportunities and successful reentry.

Fifth, drug and alcohol treatment must be provided for the almost 70 percent of incarcerated persons with substance-abuse problems.

Finally, people need what the Annie E. Casey Foundation calls Healthy Communities to receive them. Social-support networks, family reconciliation efforts, and restorative-justice help bring ex-offenders back into right relationship with the communities to which they return. The Casey Foundation is now documenting the role of the faith community in these efforts, reasoning that the resources of forgiveness, healing, and redemption are what is needed to build networks of support for this population.

Federal and state efforts are essential. So, too, are the efforts of congregations and organizations willing to invest in men and women who sincerely desire a change and a chance. Help is needed from both sides, and cooperation between them is best.

—Harold Dean Trulear, Prof. of Practical Theology
    Howard University Divinity School

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”