For Some Felons, a Better Chance to Break the Re-entry Cycle

Inmates leaving prison in Kentucky.

Inmates leaving prison in Kentucky.

April 29, 2014

In most states, people are released from prison with little more than the clothes on their backs and a bus ticket home.

They also have a felony conviction, which can disqualify even nonviolent offenders from getting what they need to start over: a job and a place to stay, and often access to mental health care and substance-abuse treatment. In many states, felons aren’t allowed to vote.

The impact’s in the numbers: Between 60 and 75 percent of ex-offenders are jobless up to a year after release, according to federal data. Within five years, 77 percent have been rearrested.

This is the cycle of re-entry, which helps to feed America’s incarcerated population, which currently stands at 2.3 million people, at a cost of about $80 billion a year.It’s also a public safety concern, as officials want to set ex-offenders up for a productive life in the community rather than a return to crime.

In recent years, there’s been a small but growing movement to interrupt that cycle.

Banning the “Box”

At least 10 states and nearly 60 cities and counties nationwide have adopted policies that remove some employment barriers for people with felony convictions. Dubbed “ban the box” laws, these policies include removing from job applications the check box that requires people to note whether they have a criminal history, and conducting background checks later in the hiring process to give those convicted of a crime a chance to prove themselves on their qualifications first.

Two years ago, the Federal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidance encouraging employers to assess people on a case-by-case basis, rather than disqualifying candidates based on their criminal background. It also encourages companies to consider the offense in relation to the job.

A few corporations are also joining the effort. Wal-Mart banned the criminal-history box in 2010, saying the change “offers those who’ve been previously incarcerated a chance to get their foot in the door.” After its home state of Minnesota passed a “ban the box” law, Target Corp. also announced it would drop criminal-history questions from its applications.

Even with those changes, some jobs are still out of reach. Many states also require licenses for certain low- or moderate-income jobs that can be denied to those with felony convictions. In Kentucky, for example, 27 different jobs require a license, including bus and truck drivers, barbers and make-up artists. All of those are off-limits to felons.

The new policies also don’t erase the stigma of a conviction, which lasts a lifetime, said Jesse Jannetta, the project director for the Urban Institute’s Jail to Community initiative. One in four adults has a conviction that would show up on a background check, according to the National Employment Law Project, which are much more easily obtained today through online databases.

Jannetta adds that even if someone with a felony does land an entry-level position, it’s unlikely that they’ll be promoted over time to a position that requires greater scrutiny, such as management. “You think of what you hope would be a career and upward earning trajectory,” he said. “For people with criminal records, it tends to look a little bit more like a plateau.”

State Reforms

Employment isn’t the only barrier ex-offenders face. Some states, driven in part by overflowing prisons and the staggering cost of detention, are starting to reexamine their policies in a more comprehensive way.

At least 17 states are working with the Justice Department under a 2010 program to come up with new, data-based strategies to cut recidivism rates, and invest funds they might otherwise spend on incarceration into job training and other services to help reintegrate ex-offenders into the community.

One such initiative, in Kentucky, includes a program to assess the risks and needs of each offender, and link them to services like mental health care and drug treatment. The state also passed similar reforms to its juvenile justice system last week.

There’s not yet enough data to determine how effective Kentucky’s program has been so far. But a few states that have implemented early-release programs that have shown some success, according to an analysis by the Pew Center on the States.

Michigan reduced its inmate population by 12 percent after introducing an initiative in 2003 that crafts a plan for each inmate’s re-entry into society, including housing, employment and transportation, along with any drug or mental health treatment they might need. Missouri, which had a problem with people returning to prison for technical parole violations, implemented a similar risk-assessment plan and cut its rate of offenders returned in two years by 10 percent.

Oregon now has among the lowest recidivism rates in the country under a program that track inmates throughout their incarceration and begins preparing inmates for release six months in advance. Between 1999 to 2004, the state’s recidivism rate dropped nearly 32 percent. Consequences remain for those who violate the terms of their supervision, but they’re more likely to involve a short stay in jail or community service, not more prison time.

Michelle Alexander, an attorney and civil-rights advocate, says it will take time to bring about fundamental change. Still, she sees current efforts at reform as the beginning of a movement to re-evaluate the U.S. approach to mass incarceration.

“This system is now so deeply rooted in our social, political and economic structure, it’s not going to just fade away, downsize out of sight with a little bit of tinkering of margins,” she said. “No, it’s going to take a fairly radical shift in our public consciousness, … and that is going to be a change of mind, a change of heart that will be a hard one, but it’s necessary if we’re ever going to turn this system around.”

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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