A shift to easing life after prison

In bid to battle crime, Massachusetts and other states promise help with everything from housing to rehab, as inmates rejoin society.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In an effort to reduce troubling rates of crime by former inmates, states are increasingly focusing attention on a crucial period of opportunity and risk - supporting offenders as they reenter life outside prison.

Massachusetts is the latest case in point, with leaders proposing that all felons be supported by supervision as they transition back into the state's towns and cities.

It joins a number of cities, and states from Rhode Island to Ohio, focusing on this reentry phase at a time when hundreds of thousands of prisoners, many netted during the crack wars of the 1980s, are returning to society each year. According to national statistics, two-thirds of state prison inmates are rearrested within three years of their release.

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Now, even in crime-tough California, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is emphasizing education, job training, and drug rehabilitation for prisoners in the state's $6.5 billion correctional system.

While reentry programs are proliferating at the state level, the idea has also taken hold in Washington. President Bush spoke of a need for reentry programs in his State of the Union address in 2004. Rep. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio and Rep. Danny Davis (D) of Illinois will soon reintroduce legislation that would, among other things, establish a national resource center of best practices.

Driven by prison demographics and tight state budgets, the popularity of reentry programs also reflects a shift in the public mind-set. Though the efficacy of such programs is controversial, experts agree that much of the "tough on crime" rhetoric of the 1980s has given way - in both parties - to a belief that transitional assistance is a cost-savings proposition and a matter of public safety.

Prisoners aren't put away forever, points out Amy Solomon, an expert in corrections and prisoners at the Urban Institute. "Traditionally the idea of rehabilitation is a Democratic idea.... Shifting the focus to public safety, and to doing things smarter, has allowed for both Republicans and Democrats to have this conversation."

The Massachusetts legislation would pair each inmate with a case manager who would help develop a plan to find work, housing, and alcohol and drug counseling. The mandatory supervision would last at least nine months and often much longer - one-quarter of the prisoners' maximum sentences. A judge could change its duration.

Currently 40 percent of prisoners in Massachusetts are not supervised at all after their release, roughly twice the national average. Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey (R), who is leading the effort, said last week that it costs $43,000 to keep one person in prison, so the state could save $1 million for every one percent of recidivism deterred. According to a study in 2002 by the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission, 49 percent of state prisoners reoffend within a year of their release.

Rep. Michael Festa, a Democrat from Melrose, calls the cost and frequency of recidivism a "prescription for disaster."

Other statistics lie behind the national movement, too. Over 600,000 prisoners are released each year from the nation's correctional facilities, and the recidivism rate - two-thirds - has remained stable for 30 years.

With 2 million people behind bars and tight budgets making it impossible to keep building prisons, "more and more communities are realizing it's in their best interest to shepherd this transition so that communities can be safe," says Peggy Burke, a principal at the Center for Effective Public Policy, a Maryland think tank.

At play as well is a gradual realization, experts say, that community-based organizations, not prisons, have the best chance of rehabilitating prisoners. "There has been recognition that prison time alone doesn't help people change behavior in the long run," says Alex Holsinger, an associate professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

This recognition isn't new, but notions of rehabilitation and assisting reentry fell out of favor in the 1980s when cries for mandatory minimum sentences and tougher punishment funneled funds toward incarceration. Ms. Solomon says that some of the renewed Republican interest in reentry has occurred because it enables faith-based groups, many of which already work with the prison population, to come forward.

Even today, not all lawmakers or researchers favor spending on reentry, and there's still plenty of "tough on crime" sentiment. Some also feel that while the reentry movement is a nice ideal, it is less effective in reality.

James Austin, president of the JFA Institute in Washington, a research center on justice and corrections, says that current programs don't serve enough people, that corrections should rely more on community services, and that there is little data to measure whether the programs are working. "There's been a lot of talk," he says, "but it still needs to be implemented properly."

Indeed, most programs are still limited in scope. That's one reason that Frederica Williams, executive director of the Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury, a Boston neighborhood, started a voluntary post-prison release collaborative for outgoing inmates in 2003. "There was a huge gap once they were released back to the community," she says. "They went back to the life that they knew."

Solomon says that the holistic approach in Massachusetts could help fill that gap and even become a national model. "If it is implemented as it is envisioned, it would put Massachusetts at the forefront," she says. "A lot of states are innovating on the margins."

The idea has garnered local support. While Mr. Festa hopes to see a more comprehensive approach, he believes the reentry proposal is an important first step.

Meanwhile, the police superintendent in Lowell, Mass., who established a voluntary reentry program some five years ago, says the new legislation will bolster a program that, even in limited form, has succeeded. "We've done the best we can under the current law and with no funding," says Edward Davis, superintendent of the Lowell Police Department. "The steps [the Romney administration] have taken would remove that roadblock."

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