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The vast majority of all prisoners—more than 95%— will eventually leave prison and return to the community. Many of these prisoners will return to the very communities from which they came. The term prisoner reentry has been used to refer to the process of returning home after a prison stay. Those thinking about the challenges of prisoner reentry are concerned with making this transition from prison to the community as successful as possible.
Although people have been “returning home” from prison for as long as prisons have been used as places for punishment, as we entered the 21st century, the sheer volume of prisoners returning home each year generated a renewed interest in furthering our understanding of prisoner reentry. With over 2 million people in prisons and jails, and approximately 600,000 prisoners returning home each year (more than 1,500 per day), the development of strategies for increasing the chances of success at this crucial stage is essential.
Challenges of Prisoner Reentry
Over the past several decades, there has been steady and substantial annual growth in prison populations. Although interest in prisoner reentry was in part generated from concerns around the sheer volume of prisoners returning to communities, the shifting characteristics of the inmate populations approaching release and the changing nature of release mechanisms also stimulated concern. With changes in sentencing practices over the past several decades, prisoners approaching release are serving longer sentences, are less likely to have received any sort of educational or vocational programming while in prison, and are also increasingly less likely to receive adequate postrelease supervision.
Prisoner reentry is not simply a correctional concern or a criminal justice system concern. Nor is concern about prisoner reentry simply concern about offender recidivism. Successful prisoner reentry initiatives recognize both the challenges faced by ex-offenders in trying to reintegrate and the challenges that ex-offenders pose to public safety as they try to navigate the reentry process. To that end, there are two crucial components to reentry initiatives: a focus on the offender and maximizing the offender’s potential for successful reintegration upon return from prison and a focus on communities and developing community capacity to successfully accept returning prisoners.
The most pressing needs of prisoners returning to the community are in the areas of education, employment, housing, and health and substance abuse. Perhaps not surprisingly, the chances of success in reentry diminish precipitously if a returning prisoner’s needs in any of these areas are not addressed or cannot be met. For example, a returning offender who is unable to secure viable employment may resort quite quickly to criminal activity to “make ends meet.” Similarly, the inability to secure housing may result in exprisoner homelessness and increased risk for reoffense. Although the risk of reoffense is heightened in the period immediately following release when the challenges are greatest, it is important that reentry initiatives focus not only on the point of release, but also on the period of time leading up to release (reestablishing ties to the family and community) and on the months and years that follow release. Reentry is a process, not a moment.
Barriers to Successful Reentry
Although it is widely recognized that offender reintegration is crucial to the successful reentry experience, there are multiple challenges faced by those trying to make this transition (and by organizations trying to assist offenders in navigating the process). Laws in most states restrict ex-offender access to benefits in the areas of housing, education, employment, and welfare assistance—all of the areas that have been identified as crucial to successful prisoner reentry. These restrictions, which have been referred to as collateral consequences and barriers to reintegration, typically attach to a felony conviction and negatively impact the ability of returning prisoners to make the transition to communities. Laws restricting the extension of housing benefits to convicted drug or violent offenders may make sense from a public (housing) safety perspective, but may prove counterproductive from a prisoner reentry perspective.
Prisoner Reentry Nationally
Prisoner reentry is a collaborative endeavor. The collaborative nature of prisoner reentry is perhaps most evident in the funding of reentry initiatives. Although criminal justice initiatives receiving federal funding have traditionally been funded through the U.S. Department of Justice, recognizing the crucial role that education, employment, health, and housing will likely play in successful prisoner reentry, funding for reentry initiatives now typically comes from multiple federal agencies and private foundations. Funding for the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI), for example, came from five different federal agencies (the U.S. Departments of Justice, Labor, Education, Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Human Services). Similarly, in 2001, the Council of State Governments established the Reentry Policy Council (RPC) to develop bipartisan policy recommendations and facilitate information sharing around reentry initiatives. The RPC focuses principally on developing strategies for addressing the public safety, health and housing, and employment challenges raised by prisoner reentry. Like SVORI, funding for RPC comes from multiple federal agencies and various private foundations.
Prisoner reentry features prominently on the agendas at the Urban Institute, VERA Institute of Justice, and other research organizations devoted to issues of crime and justice. Prisoner reentry is widely recognized as one of the most pressing challenges that penologists and policymakers of this generation face. Unprecedented growth in incarceration and a shift in the underlying rationale of corrections have meant an influx of returning prisoners who have received little in the way of rehabilitative programming. Without sufficient attention to the process by which these inmates return (e.g., prisoner reentry), all agree that both the returning prisoners and the community will likely suffer.
- Lattimore, P. K., Brumbaugh, S., Visher, C., Lindquist, C., Winterfield, L., Salas, M., et al. (2004). National portrait of SVORI: Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative. Washington, DC: RTI International and the Urban Institute.
- Lynch, J. P., & Sabol, W. J. (2001). Prisoner reentry in perspective. Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press.
- Travis, J. (2005). But they all come back: Facing the challenges of prisoner reentry. Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press.
- Travis, J., Solomon, A., & Waul, M. (2001). From prison to home: The dimensions and consequences of prisoner reentry. Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press.
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