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Scholars say more research is needed on the societal re-entry of the formerly incarcerated

By Ronald Roach

Since the late 1960s, politicians and policy-makers have talked tough on crime and have passed tough laws to build prisons and to prescribe lengthy sentences for the criminally convicted. In the past five years, however, public attention has focused on a criminal justice issue to which politicians and other public officials previously paid little heed. That issue is the societal re-entry of the formerly incarcerated, which is documented at an unprecedented scale now as more people are leaving prisons than at any time in American history.

Since 2000, more than 600,000 people a year have been leaving prisons and jails in the United States, which is a fourfold increase over the past two decades. In comparison, the American prison and jail population rose to 2.085 million in 2003 from 503,586 in 1980, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. 

“The Justice Department has predicted that 630,000 individuals are going to be released from prison this year. Unfortunately, as a nation, we have not prepared for these individuals as they come back to neighborhoods and communities. We must take a serious look at our correctional system and a serious look at what it takes to reform, to rehabilitate and to prepare people for re-entry into normal society once they are released from correctional facilities and institutions,” says U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill.

Davis, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, has been the author of the Public Safety Ex-Offender Self Sufficiency Act and a chief co-sponsor of the Second Chance Act of 2004: Community Safety through Recidivism Prevention. The bills, which will be reintroduced this year, are legislative measures to provide supportive services and opportunities for the formerly incarcerated. Though officials such as Davis have been pushing the federal government to address the re-entry issue, the burden has fallen squarely on localities and states to provide the necessary social services and training for ex-offenders. 

Officials know that people leaving prison present a challenging profile for states and localities because such individuals have a legion of complex needs. Three-quarters of those released from prison and jail have a history of substance abuse, two-thirds have no high school diploma, and 55 percent of re-entering adults have children under 18, according to the Re-Entry Policy Council, a policy advisory group established to advise state governments. Nearly half of those leaving jail earned less than $600 per month immediately prior to their incarceration, and their opportunities for employment are significantly diminished once they have a criminal record, the policy council reports. In addition, more than a third of jail inmates report having some physical or mental disability.

Criminal justice reform advocates and some scholars say that in addition to their personal disadvantages and problems, such as low education and high rates of a history of substance abuse, the formerly incarcerated are unjustly saddled with a depth of social stigma, discrimination and political disenfranchisement that manifests as “social death.” There’s also concern over what many perceive as the loss of rehabilitation as a goal in the U.S. criminal justice system.  

“Unless prisons and corrections systems truly adopt the rehabilitative model while prisoners are incarcerated, unless our society is willing to have faith in the fact that these men and women have been rehabilitated, unless there’s a demonstration on the part of a society to have a willingness to use those coming out of the jails in a productive way, we’re going to continue to see higher recidivism,” says Dr. Ramona Brockett, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore.

“The time has been served for some of these drug offenses and other offenses, and these people are coming out,” explains Dr. Everette B. Penn, a criminology professor at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. “These people have now been labeled as felons, and although they did wrong before by that definition they have served their time and now they’re back in society. The question becomes ‘is society ready to accept them back?’

“And I would say at this time with some of the laws that currently exist, (with) the loss of voting privileges and the constant reminder on job applications that this person was a felon and continues to be labeled as a felon limits the opportunities for these people,” he adds.

Combating Social Death

Scholars say that while there hasn’t been much research produced specifically around the re-entry issue, there is considerable activity devoted to interpreting and explaining what some consider to be an incarceration crisis in the United States. Some scholars have argued that with the last three decades of building prisons, the passage of harsh sentencing laws and aggressive treatment of Black and Latino defendants in the courts’ local and national leaders have redefined governance largely by their response to crime.  

Emerging in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, the impulse towards “governing through crime” gave rise to the “War on Drugs” and aggressive law enforcement with the passage of laws such as mandatory-minimum sentencing. Mandatory-minimum sentencing permits no room for judges to exercise discretion in sentencing. Those found guilty of a crime are automatically locked up for a set amount of time.

By the early 1990s, the federal government and numerous states took the mandatory-minimum sentencing idea to another level, by passing “three strikes” laws mandating prison sentences of 25 years to life for third felonies. In addition, the establishment of disparate sentences for crack and powder cocaine possession garnered criticism because it was seen to demonstrate criminal justice bias against minorities.

When researchers look at the re-entry issue, it’s important they do it in the context of what initially led to the removal or incarceration of people from their respective communities, says Dr. Todd Clear, a distinguished professor in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.

“One thing that is consistent in the research is that when ex-offenders return to home communities unable to offer them assistance and opportunities, their likelihood of getting into trouble with the law increases,” Clear says. 

“Researchers have really been late to this (re-entry) issue,” says Dr. Geoff Ward, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University. “I think it’s safe to say that it’s really only been in the last five years that really significant research has been committed to not the issue of re-entry generally, but how mass imprisonment has introduced unprecedented social, political, economic havoc on communities…The scale of the re-entry issue has been increased by the problem of mass imprisonment over the last couple of decades,” he says.

One issue said to be generating a symbolic as well as widespread image for the formerly incarcerated is the national debate over convicted felons and the right to vote. Nearly five million Americans are barred from voting by a complicated spectrum of state laws that deny those convicted as felons of the right to vote, sometimes temporarily, but often for life. Criminal justice reform advocates have long contended that such laws have neither correctional nor rehabilitative function, yet represent a clear example of imposing social or civic death on the formerly incarcerated.

“First and foremost programs, activists and organizations and government programs should see to the immediate needs of the formerly incarcerated,” says Laurent Alfred, director of the Africana Criminal Justice Project at Columbia University. “With that being said, none of that will happen if this population is so politically disenfranchised. It’s a population that lacks any political voice whatsoever in many states because of permanent disenfranchisement.”

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