Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Right Way to Handle Former Inmates:

To control recidivism, and thus have a shot at controlling prison crowding and costs, the states and localities need to develop comprehensive programs that help former inmates find jobs, housing, training, drug treatment and mental health care. A promising model has emerged in Brooklyn, where District Attorney Charles Hynes started his re-entry program long before other jurisdictions even realized they were necessary.

Created in 1999 in Brooklyn, ComAlert was recently the subject of a state-funded study carried out by the district attorney’s office in collaboration with Bruce Western of Harvard, a sociologist and criminal justice expert. The program is still evolving and is far from perfect. But the study shows that former inmates are more likely to get jobs and keep jobs — and more likely to remain out of jail — if they undergo a rigorous regime of counseling and drug treatment while participating in a companion program that offers them immediate work experience and job training.

Drug treatment, counseling and drug testing are cornerstones of the ComAlert program. In addition to being counseled and tested, participants are also encouraged to sign up with Ready, Willing & Able, a highly regarded work and training program offered by the Doe Fund, a nonprofit organization in New York.

Many of those who join the program have little or no experience with the world of work. They begin to get that experience by working full time in low-skill jobs like street cleaning, which pays between $7.40 and $8.15 per hour. Most participants are eventually moved into vocational programs where they are trained in one of several areas, including food preparation, pest control, office services and building management. They are often referred to jobs at companies that have longstanding relationships with the program.

According to the report, ComAlert graduates are less likely be re-arrested after leaving prison and much more likely to be employed than either program dropouts or members of the control group. Participants who complete the Doe Fund work-training component do even better. They have an employment rate of about 90 percent, somewhat higher than the ComAlert graduates generally and several times higher than the control group.

These results are quite promising, but more research will be needed to bear them out fully. Beyond that, the ComAlert team will need to find ways to lower the combined dropout and failure rate, which is nearly 46 percent. These issues aside, the program is clearly headed in the right direction and deserves to be expanded and emulated elsewhere. It represents an impressive start toward the goal of helping newly released inmates forge viable lives on the outside.

November 29, 2007
New York Times Editorial

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

US. Prison System a Costly Failure

The US prison population has risen eight-fold since 1970, with little impact on crime but at great cost to the taxpayer, researchers say. There are more than 1.5 million people in US state and federal jails, a report by a Washington-based criminal justice research group, the JFA Institute says. Inmate numbers are projected to rise by 192,000 in five years, costing $27.5bn to build and run jails.

The JFA recommends reducing the number and length of sentences. The Unlocking America report, which was published on Monday, also advocated changing terms of parole and finding alternatives to prison as part of a major overhaul of the US justice system. "There is no evidence that keeping people in prison longer makes us any safer," said JFA president James Austin.

The report said that US crime rates, which have been in decline since the 1990s, are about the same as those for 1973.
It says the incarceration rate has soared because sentences have got longer and those who violate parole or probation are more likely to be given prison terms. The report said that every year hundreds of thousands of Americans are sent to jail "for crimes that pose little if any danger or harm to society". It cited several examples including a Florida woman's two-year sentence for throwing a cup of coffee at another car in a traffic row.

Its recommendations run counter to the Bush administration's policy of longer, harsher sentences, which the government says has contributed to falling violent crime and murder figures. The JFA researchers found that women represented the fastest-growing sector of the US prison population.

The report was funded by the Rosenbaum Foundation and the Open Society Institute.

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2007/11/19 17:44:20 GMT

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

A Second Chance for Ex-Offenders

If past patterns hold true, more than half of the 650,000 prisoners released this year will be back behind bars by 2010. With the prison population exploding and the price of incarceration now topping $60 billion a year, states are rightly focusing on ways to reduce recidivism. Congress can give these efforts a boost by passing the Second Chance Act, which would provide crucial help to people who have paid their debts to society.

Newly released inmates are often driven right back to prison by difficulty in obtaining jobs, education and housing, as well as by the social stigma that comes from having been in prison. In addition, many of these people suffer from mental illnesses but have no access to treatment. Some states have begun offering assistance in these areas, but much more needs to be done.

The Second Chance Act would add to what the country knows about the re-entry process by establishing a federal re-entry task force, along with a national resource center to collect and disseminate information about proven programs.

The bill would broaden access to high-quality drug treatment, which is in scarce supply almost everywhere. It would also encourage states to work harder at reuniting families, which are often torn apart when a parent goes to prison.

The country worsened the recidivism crisis when it killed off many of the in-prison education programs that have a strong track record of helping released inmates live crime-free lives. The bill would begin to reverse that destructive trend by providing grants to improve academic and vocational education behind bars.

The programs necessary to help former prisoners find a place in society do not exist in most communities. The Second Chance Act would help to create those programs by providing money, training, technical assistance — and a Congressional stamp of approval.

A New York Times Editorial published November 7, 2007