Incarcerated people face barriers to reentry post prison. How one initiative aims to help

Each year, more than 600,000 people are released from federal and state prisons, according to recent numbers by the federal government, and 9 million more cycle in and out of jails. But leaving incarceration doesn’t necessarily mean a return to normal life, with barriers, both officially sanctioned and systemic, preventing access to basic needs like housing or restricting job opportunities, even if it has been years since the formerly incarcerated have been released.

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In some states, people with felony convictions can’t vote. Public housing authorities can use their discretion to discourage people with criminal records from applying for housing, or put blanket bans on people with certain criminal convictions. And having a criminal record can also be a major barrier to employment, with a 2009 study finding that 28 percent of applicants without a record got a job callback, compared to only 15 percent of those with a record, according to a 2017 Urban Institute Report.

A new national initiative aims to help reduce those barriers over the next decade, and in doing so, make the process of leaving prison, called reentry, smoother and more effective.

The initiative, called Reentry 2030, is a collaboration among the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the Correctional Leaders Association and advocacy group JustLeadershipUSA. It launched April 21, with the support of the Department of Justice.

No one leaves prison with the goal of coming back, said JustLeadershipUSA president and CEO DeAnna Hoskins said. But structural barriers – such as employers who are allowed to ask about former incarceration, or public housing that can reject those with felonies – often impede people’s ability to land on, and stay on, their feet.

And for many Black and brown people, systemic barriers and racism have made reentry even harder. Particularly as Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate of nearly five times that of white Americans, the issue of reentry is one that squarely impacts communities of color.

Hoskins has firsthand experience with the reentry process, both from reentering as a formerly incarcerated person more than two decades ago and also more recently, with her 24-year-old son. Less than a week after Reentry 2030 was launched, Hoskins’ son tried to get his driver’s license. But he faced obstacles stemming from his incarceration, and without a license, he couldn’t drive himself to a job, Hoskins told the PBS NewsHour.

That’s the situation many people find themselves in after they leave prison, she said.

“I’m like, well, this is a young Black man, 24 years old who’s really trying within his heart to do what’s right and walk through the system. But every time the system has another system in place that [stops] him. And if you don’t have a support system to help you get over that hurdle – this is why we find so many young men and women saying, ‘I surrender. I can’t do it,’” she said.

Initially, Reentry 2030 will be more of a framework for restructuring the reentry process at the state level across the U.S., rather than outlining a specific set of programs, said Megan Quattlebaum, director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center. It will also soon include initiatives such as reentry playbooks for state legislators and administrators – including data collection and analysis guidance – as well as programmatic recommendations, webinars and a summit at the end of the year.

Congress passed the Second Chance Act in early 2008 with the goal of reducing recidivism, or the returning of formerly incarcerated people to prison because they commit new crimes.

Recidivism is common. A 2018 Department of Justice report followed prisoners released in 24 states in 2008 for 10 years. Around 66 percent of those formerly incarcerated people were arrested within three years. Within 10 years, 82 percent had been arrested again.

According to a 2021 report by the Brookings Institution, more than 640,000 people reenter communities from prison each year. “Historically disenfranchised neighborhoods receive the bulk of returning citizens,” the Brookings report said, adding “Ultimately, reentry experiences are shaped by class and racialized neighborhood segregation.”

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And while the reentry process has improved over the last decade, Quattlembaum said, it’s still in need of vast restructuring. The goal for Reentry 2030 will be to examine the barriers and gaps within current reentry programs across the U.S. and identify ways to improve them.

“Many good things have happened. But reentry services and reentry supports remain pretty disjointed. And so your experience of reentry can vary a tremendous amount based on where you are incarcerated and what community you’re returning to,” Quattlebaum said.

Renentry 2030 was created by the CSG Justice Center to help create more comprehensive reentry programs in states across the U.S.

At its launch, Nicole Jarrett, the director of the Corrections and Reentry Division at the CSG Justice Center, explained that reentry today is plagued by problems, including lack of coordination between and gaps in and among reentry programs.

“There are tens of thousands of structural barriers to reintegration that exist in state, legislative and administrative policies,” Jarrett said, which hinder access to “jobs, business and occupational licensing, housing, education, public benefits, civic participation and other rights and opportunities for people with criminal records.”

Having correctional leaders involved in reentry efforts is key, said David Harding, professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, and co-author of the Brookings report on reentry.

“That’s the set of people you need to have in the room doing this kind of work. Especially if the people on the correctional leadership side are not on board, then not much is going to change.”

It’s also imperative to involve formerly incarcerated people, said JustLeadershipUSA’s Hoskins.

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That’s because only formerly incarcerated people have the lived experience to understand what is helpful – and harmful – to those trying to effectively reenter society, while carrying the experiences they had while incarcerated.

The goals of Reentry 2030 are largely dependent on states first needing to identify problems specific to them. Then, they can gather data on what’s working and what’s not working, Quattlebaum said. Then they can start the process of linking reentry programs and reducing barriers within each community. They’ll also be able to work within and across states, to share knowledge and help with common problems.

Reentry 2030 will help guide states individually, tailoring their reform recommendations to particular local contexts, Quattlebaum said.

“What we really don’t have are metrics of success or how many people are in those stable jobs, how many people are housed, how people are getting the treatment they need. And so we want to help states track those metrics as well,” she added.

The next step, Quattlebaum said, will be for states to develop an “ambitious but realistic” plan to improve.

Because each state will continue to approach reentry differently, Harding says what might arise is an unintentional experiment at what works and what doesn’t among these varying programs.

“I think there’s definitely the possibility that different states or localities will come up with very different framings of what is sort of the root of the reentry problem, and therefore come up with very different solutions. And we’ll get this sort of ‘states as laboratory of democracy thing,’” Harding said.

The project only just kicked off, so it’s hard to tell whether the initiative will find success. Quattlebaum is optimistic, however, that there’s widespread, bipartisan desire for reform. At the Reentry 2030 online launch, both Democratic Rep. Danny K. Davis of Illinois and Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman spoke in favor of the initiative.

The Biden administration has also made reentry reform a key goal. The White House in April released a comprehensive plan to help formerly incarcerated people seek employment opportunities once they are released. Part of the White House’s efforts that were detailed included supporting Reentry 2030.

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As crime rises nationally and dominates headlines – though it is still not at heights seen since the 1990s – political will for reducing barriers for formerly incarcerated people might wane. Still, Harding said, because the work on reentry will likely happen on a granular, more local level, it’s possible that those involved will be more solutions-oriented and less concerned about the political winds.

“It’s one thing to have a national conversation where things quickly get very politicized, and attached to different parties and attached to people’s identities,” Harding said.

But, he added, “another reason to potentially be optimistic is that when you do start having people have conversations more locally, they’re able to sort of cut through that a little bit more and build on the relationships that they have, trust each other a little bit more, and be more sort of problem and solution-focused.”

“The challenge I anticipate is not really one of rallying. I honestly think the country is pretty rallied around this issue,” Quattlebaum said. “I think on some just basic human level, that the idea of a meaningful second chances is one that a lot of different types of people can rally around.”

“I see a lot of desire and interest and work going on at the state level to do that. And our goal is to support that,” she said.

Ultimately, Hoskins said, the goal of Reentry 2030 is to help restructure a system so recently incarcerated people can be looked at as individuals, and can have their needs met accordingly.

“So when you think about the dehumanization, the tearing down of the human spirit, we have to really take a look at how are we managing this system? And that’s what Reentry 2030 is about,” Hoskins said.

“It’s not only about connecting the resources so people can be successful. It’s also about the human dignity that this system has. And the reason the criminal justice system is so reluctant to talk to those with lived experience is because it still dehumanizes us as not valued,” Hoskins said.