Reentry ought not be a roll of the dice

Everyone has heard the numbers…and they will take your breath away:

  • Federal, state and county correction facilities held 2.3 million prisoners at the beginning of 2008–almost equivalent to the entire population of the city of Chicago in 2010.
  • States spend an average of about $25,000 per year to incarcerate one prisoner; the figure is slightly higher for the federal prison system.The total spent nationwide is about $55 billion per year.
  • About two-thirds of all prisoners released will be rearrested within three years with most of them returned to prison to serve another sentence.

It is that last statistic that has long troubled people in the criminal justice system. It is one of the reasons cited for lengthy prison sentences; the longer an inmate is kept in prison and the older he is when released, the less likely he is to recidivate. For example, a sentence for selling crack cocaine could be as much as eight times longer than a sentence for selling powdered cocaine, though new sentencing guidelines have narrowed the difference.

One of the questions that has bedeviled everyone who wants to see prison populations reduced is what can prison officials do to promote successful inmate reentry to society? Finding answers to this question has become the cutting edge for federal and state prison bureaucrats as well as for those involved in a wide array of prison ministries and volunteer programs.

The reasons for this are obvious: state and federal budgets are contracting, not expanding. And, except for healthcare, spending on corrections has increased faster than any other item in state budgets. In addition, the high rate of recidivism has got to be brought down.

In 2008 the Second Chance Act passed the U.S. Congress with remarkable bipartisan support, as well as the support of leaders at the state and local levels. The bill authorized $165 million in grants to state and local government agencies and community organizations to provide employment and housing assistance, substance  abuse treatment, family programming, mentoring, victim support and other services that help people returning from prison and jail avoid criminal activity and succeed in their communities.

In fiscal year 2009, only $25 million was approved by Congress. In 2010 the figure went up to $100 million, but in 2011 was decreased to $83 million. For fiscal year 2012 the U.S. Senate approved nothing and the House approved $70 million. What might finally be allocated is unknown.

In an era of fiscal belt-tightening the decrease or elimination of funding for effective inmate reentry programs might well have the support of many people. But consider these facts:

  • The incidence of serious mental illnesses is two to four times higher among prisoners than it is among the general population.
  • Three-fourths of those returning from prison have a history of substance use disorders. Over 70 percent of prisoners with serious mental illnesses also have a substance use disorder.
  • More than 10 percent of people entering prisons and jails are homeless in the month prior to their incarceration. For those with mental illnesses, the rates are higher — around 20 percent.
  • Two out of every five prisoners and jail inmates lack a high school diploma or its equivalent.
  • Approximately 2 million children in the U.S. have parents who are currently incarcerated, and more than 10 million minor children have parents who have come under some form of criminal justice¬† supervision at some point in their children’s lives.

It is easy to see why a successful reentry for a released prisoner is akin to a roll of the dice. Or, to use another gambling metaphor, the deck is stacked against them.

When I began to minister in the federal prison at Canaan, I had little grasp on what would eventually become my reason for being there. But I have come to see it clearly: defy the odds and help pre-release prisoners have a fighting chance at successful reentry.

It would be a shame if Congress decides not to allocate any funding in 2012 to those organizations who also have that mission and are operating on a larger scale than am I. Still, this is not first and foremost about federal funding; it is about the gospel, which ever offers a second chance, indefinitely renewed, to those who did it all wrong, have paid the price and stand at the threshold ready to try again.

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