DURING A BROADCAST town hall forum late last month, President Biden took issue with the way some jurisdictions release inmates. “You get 25 bucks and a bus ticket. You end up back under the bridge exactly where you were before,” he said.
When justice-involved individuals re-offend, the easiest answer as to “why” is to lay blame on the individual. If, however, our “corrections” system is meant to “reform” offenders, then part of the blame for our nation’s high recidivism rates – the latest Bureau of Justice Statistics show roughly half of released inmates are back in prison after three years – belong to policymakers and the criminal justice system itself.
The lack of reentry programs is failing released offenders and, therefore, our communities. As a society, we are not helping released inmates get back on their feet. Many newly released ex-offenders are facing a litany of struggles that we cannot begin to understand – housing insecurity, unemployment, lack of social supports and often severe behavioral health issues – that are closely intertwined and also the root causes of most crimes. For example, it’s hard to get a job if you’re living with substance use disorder and it’s hard to pay for housing without a job.
The best solution to high recidivism rates is a holistic approach to reentry services. In my agency’s work with local sheriffs and their correctional programs, we have focused on addressing root causes of recidivism to ultimately help released inmates become active, independent members of society who earn a taxable wage.
The early results of our efforts are encouraging. A program goal of reducing recidivism by the six-month mark was met. The individuals served in our program are three to four times less likely to reoffend compared to national averages. Additionally, among the individuals we supported, we observed higher levels of employment and stable housing, and decreases in substance use.
Reducing recidivism does not come easy. It takes strong oversight by strategic partners who understand the nuances of holistic care. Progress is also enabled through consistent, broad and thoughtful government funding for these initiatives. This funding is an investment not only because of the positive change it brings about in human lives, but because these interventions result in decreased public expense for incarceration.
We cannot enact meaningful change through a patchwork of short-term grant and pilot programs that focus solely on singular issues like employment or substance use. Legislators must act to codify programs and policies that address the root causes of recidivism. Bills like H1419, which mandates certain reentry addiction treatment plans for inmates who need it, are a step in the right direction.
By helping released inmates recover from substance use disorder, gain access to housing, and be better prepared to work and contribute in our communities, we’re investing in short-term economic recovery and long-term prosperity in neighborhoods that are disproportionately impacted by incarceration and recidivism – many of the same that have been hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout. These efforts will also bolster our state’s workforce with men and women who can use work to build a better life.
More important, by helping the millions of Americans who cycle through local jails, state prisons, and federal penitentiaries prepare for the challenges they face as released inmates, we can break a damaging cycle of crime and improve our communities.
We can and should do better than a few dollars and a bus ticket. The rewards will be immense.
Charles E. Gagnon is president and CEO of Volunteers of America of Massachusetts.