A new report from the Brookings-AEI Working Group on Criminal Justice Reform was published this year as part of its series: “A Better Path Forward for Criminal Justice.” The seventh chapter of the series focuses on how to improve prisoner reentry for the over 640,000 people per year who return to their communities following incarceration. In this article, we provide a summary of their findings, including short- and long-term recommendations to increase racial equity and improve the reentry process.
The Need for Criminal Justice Reform
The report frames prisoner reentry as a racial justice issue that merits a criminal justice reform response. Black Americans are anywhere from five to eight times more likely to be imprisoned than members of other racial or ethnic groups, and both Black and Brown community members face lifetime imprisonment “due to the lack of institutional support, statutorily imposed legal barriers, stigmas, and low wages.”
The pandemic created a challenge that became an opportunity to rethink imprisonment and reentry. Thousands of incarcerated individuals were released in an effort to limit the spread of disease—necessitating the removal of the traditional barriers noted above.
“More than half of the formerly incarcerated are unable to find stable employment within their first year of return and three-fourths of them are rearrested within three years of release.”
Thus, any focus on criminal justice reforms to address prison reentry must also include “wider policies to increase racial and economic equity.”
Recommended Reforms to Increase Equity
Reentry success can be highly influenced by income level and racialized segregation. In Boston, for example, nearly half the participants reentered the same two neighborhoods. Thus, the systemic geographic disenfranchisement of communities highly impacts both incarceration rates and recidivism rates.
“We must move away from a policy framework that focuses on punishment as a tool for controlling risk in favor of a focus on human rights, harm reduction, and the social, political, and economic reintegration of those who have been incarcerated.”
The report’s authors include short-, medium-, and long-term recommendations focused on increasing racial and economic equity in the following ways:
- Short-term recommendations include improving vaccination efforts, broadening digital skill development, and enhancing coordination among service deliverers.
- Medium-term recommendations focus on improving employment readiness through changes to licensing, criminal background checks, and career training programs.
- Long-term recommendations include increasing investment in housing, addiction, and rehabilitation programs, as well as restructuring parole to facilitate community reintegration.
Recommended Reforms to Improve Reentry
“Research has demonstrated that health, housing, skill development, mentorship, social networks, and the collaborative efforts of public and private organizations collectively improve the reentry experience.”
Although 88% of those incarcerated are held by the state, federal involvement and commitment is necessary in the following four areas:
- Acknowledging the “historical legacy of mass incarceration in the United States” to help center criminal justice reform as a human rights issue.
- Providing a model for effective reentry policy that states can then emulate.
- Establish funding to reproduce successful reentry programs across the country.
- Create and pass legislation designed to address and rectify institutional inequities and racialized barriers to “improve reentry outcomes.”
Despite a decrease in the number of incarcerated individuals nationally during the pandemic, the size of the U.S. prison population has begun again to rise toward “pre-pandemic levels.”
Reentry in the midst of an ongoing pandemic has become more challenging; however, the report’s authors have identified multiple short-, medium-, and long-term reforms aimed at improving the reentry process. These are summarized below.
Recommended Short-Term Reforms
- Ensure vaccination access in correctional facilities.
- Continue to minimize the number of people incarcerated.
- Boost tests, quarantine efforts, and support for individuals with conviction records.
- Improve emergency guidance and require correctional facilities to provide IDs and services before reentry.
- Educate soon-to-be-released individuals on how to access training, digital skills support, and career support in their communities.
- Apply funds to enhance “data sharing and service coordination,” as well as internet and wi-fi access within facilities.
Recommended Medium-Term Reforms
- Allow access to public housing for individuals with a conviction record.
- Prioritize Equal Opportunity Employment laws and oversight to address hiring discrimination for formerly incarcerated individuals.
- Reform occupational licensing and educational admission policies.
- Regulate the criminal background check industry as carefully as consumer credit is currently regulated to ensure the rights of formerly incarcerated individuals.
- Increase access to and funding for job readiness, training, networking, education, and employment programs.
- Expand access to cognitive behavioral therapy, an evidence-based strategy to improve decision-making, in conjunction with reentry preparation.
Recommended Long-Term Reforms
- Shift the focus of parole from punishment to prosocial development, with an emphasis on economic and social opportunities for reintegration.
- Expand access to “housing, employment, health, mental health and addiction” services.
- Develop revised sanctions for parole violations that are less disruptive to reentry goals, and train parole officers in “service coordination, motivational interviewing, alternatives to punishment, and counseling.”
- Allow parolees to earn academic or vocational credits to decrease supervision or speed up termination.
- Adopt a “continuity of care model” to connect in-prison behavioral, mental, substance abuse, and physical health treatment to community programs.
The authors recommend future research in three key areas to help fill existing gaps and better understand a broad range of reentry experiences.
- Reentry experiences across the full range of identities, including racial/ethnic, sex/gender, orientation, age, geography, and intersectional identities.
- The influence of practice on outcomes in multiple areas, including the pandemic, parole, sanctions, hiring, licensing, and employment discrimination.
- Policy and/or legal barriers to positive reentry outcomes.
To read the full article summarized here, visit: https://www.brookings.edu/research/a-better-path-forward-for-criminal-justice-prisoner-reentry/