Stateline Story

National Reforms Needed to Help Inmates Return Home

  • January 14, 2005
  • By Kavan Peterson
"Nearly 650,000 people will be released from prison this year, and 7 million will be released from jails. Every policymaker should be concerned about the public safety and fiscal implications of these extraordinary numbers," Timothy Ryan, chief of the Orange County, Florida Corrections Department, and past president of the American Jail Association, said in a news release Thursday.

Recognizing the widespread failure of corrections facilities to adequately prepare prison inmates to return to their communities, a consortium of national public policy groups and state officials produced a report with hundreds of recommendations to help improve correctional re-entry programs for state and federal prisoners.

The recommendations were developed by the Re-entry Policy Council (RPC), which consists of more than 100 policymakers representing Democrats and Republicans, law enforcement, corrections, and health and social service agencies and can be found online at www.reentrypolicy.org. The RPC is sponsored by the Council of State Governments, a nonpartisan organization that tracks all branches of state government, plus 11 additional nonprofit organizations.

With the exception of health care, state spending on corrections has increased faster than any other state expenditure. Tougher drug laws and mandatory minimum sentences imposed in the 1980s and 1990s have dramatically increased prison populations. Since 1982, total spending on corrections has increased nationally from $9 billion a year to $60 billion in 2002.

The problem is that at least two-thirds of those released from prison end up back in jail within three years, a rate that has not improved for 30 years.

With more people in jail now than ever in U.S. history at least 2.2 million in 2003 policymakers are paying more attention to abysmal recidivism rates especially at the state level, said Peggy Burke, an attorney for the Center for Effective Public Policy, a nonprofit organization in Silver Spring, Md., that does research on criminal justice issues.

"Every state is beginning to focus on the need to put more attention on helping offenders return to their communities," said Burke, who has read the study.

Reducing recidivism rates could save states millions of tax dollars. But turning former inmates into productive members of society is a daunting task and requires a major investment in support services, Burke said.

According to the RPC report, at least three-quarters of released inmates have a history of substance abuse and require treatment; two-thirds have no high school diploma; nearly half of prisoners made less than $600 a month before going to prison; one-third of prisoners have physical or mental disabilities, and 55 percent of inmates leave prison owing $20,000 in child support debt.

In addition, most people released from prison return in high concentrations to poor communities where they're least likely to succeed, according to a statement by New York State Assemblyman Jeffrion L. Aubry (D), who co-chairs the RPC.

"This issue affects not just those who are coming out of incarceration but also the neighborhoods to which they return, which are often the most disadvantaged and the most ill-equipped to handle this population," Aubry said.