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Washington Examiner


Reentry programs for ex-prisoners show promise

April 28, 2009

By Kimberly Hendrickson

About 700,000 federal and state prisoners return home each year in America, and most soon commit more crimes.

A 2002 Department of Justice study found that over 67 percent of released prisoners wind up rearrested within three years; about half, in the same three years, get locked up again. Recidivism—the propensity of ex-offenders to be rearrested, reconvicted, or reincarcerated—has long vexed policymakers.

What's new is that the current recidivism rate is high (5 percentage points higher than in the 1980s) and that prison expenditures are crippling state budgets.

Now mayors around the country are promoting a small-scale response: Government-run "reentry" programs that seek to assimilate ex-offenders into society. The programs' approaches vary, but many adopt a philosophy called "work-first"—that is, getting ex-offenders jobs quickly.

Mayors have begun to experiment with work-first reentry for several reasons. One is that the older reentry model, an expensive cornucopia of social services for ex-cons, hasn't succeeded. Another is that foundations, and more recently the federal government, have been embracing the employment model.

A third reason is the success of welfare reform in encouraging work among the formerly dependent. People thought to be unemployable because of minimal education or poor skills were moved into work by focusing on job placement instead of social services. Why shouldn't the same principle apply to ex-cons?

Several cities are running promising reentry programs. The mayor-led reentry effort in New York City relies on private-sector intermediaries, such as the highly regarded Center for Employment Opportunities, to place probationers in jobs that pay relatively well--$9 an hour and up.

Chicago's reentry program also relies on private intermediaries to place ex-offenders, but its scale is significantly larger than New York's, and it's open to all ex-offenders, not just probationers.

In Newark, Mayor Cory Booker initially folded ex-offender work programs into the city's broader workforce initiatives; more recently, the city has received an infusion of federal and foundation money that will help implement an aggressive work-first program.

Several random-assignment studies of work-first reentry programs are currently under way, and their preliminary findings are encouraging. For example, the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation's latest report on New York's Center for Employment Opportunities indicates that those placed in jobs within three months after release are significantly less likely to have their parole revoked, to be convicted of a felony, and to be re-incarcerated.

True, most studies of recidivism rates are studying volunteer participants in work programs, raising questions of self-selection. The most serious potential weakness of work-first reentry programs, though, is that they are usually voluntary.

New York University professor Lawrence Mead, a leading welfare-reform scholar, recommends that the criminal-justice system get actively involved in work-entry efforts, perhaps through pilot programs that require work for ex-offenders and punish unemployment with tough sanctions.

In the meantime, though, mayors' piecemeal programs deserve support. Ex-cons' churning from prison to society, and then back again, exacts a heavy human toll, from the suffering of people in the low-income neighborhoods where crime is concentrated to the devastating effect on families when fathers cycle in and out of prison.

City budgets feel the impact, too, from the expense of rearresting criminals and policing high-crime neighborhoods to the cost of social services (released prisoners often end up in homeless shelters). And the crisis is about to get worse: as federal and state governments feel the pinch of the tough fiscal climate, they likely will make cuts in prison populations.

More ex-convicts will move from prisons into communities, and the number of potential criminals will go up. Locally delivered employment programs may not end recidivism, but they may be able to diminish it.

Original Source:



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