Summary of the Problem: An estimated two-thirds of the 650,000 people returning home from prison will be re-arrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor within three years.  Approximately 70-80% of people coming home from prison or jail have histories of drug or alcohol dependence.  Research shows that young people who are kept in the juvenile justice system are less likely to re-offend than young people who are transferred into the adult system.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, youth transferred from the juvenile court system to the adult criminal system are approximately 34% more likely than youth retained in the juvenile court system to be re-arrested for violent or other crime.  The Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention also released a report that concluded transfer laws substantially increase recidivism, particularly for first time violent offenders, and that laws to make it easier to transfer youth to the adult criminal court system do not prevent youth from engaging in criminal behavior.

There are basic services that should be provided to people when they are in prison in order to reduce their chances of re-offending and improve public safety.  In addition, for those who do not pose a real risk to the public, alternatives to incarceration such as drug and alcohol treatment, community service, payment of a fine, and probation have been shown to lead to significantly lower recidivism rates.  There should be alternatives in place for non-violent offenders so that taxpayers do not have to pay the cost of incarcerating individuals who are not a risk to the public and may receive better services in the community.  There also need to be merit-based programs to encourage good behavior and rehabilitation during periods of incarceration.

Family ties are incredibly important to maintain in order to reduce recidivism and increase public safety.  Too often, families are destroyed because a parent or child is in prison.  Nearly 3 million children have at least one parent in prison.  These children are 6 times more likely to be incarcerated than other youth, according to some public health studies: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15488438

In a recent article, Pat Nolan, Vice President of Prison Fellowship, wrote:

Of all the factors that help inmates after their release, an intact family is the most important in helping them stay on the right path. Research shows that when returning inmates have a supportive family, they are more likely to find a job, less likely to use drugs, and less likely to be involved in criminal activities.  The support and accountability that a stable family provides have a clear, positive impact.  Studies also show that children of inmates who are able to visit with their parents have increased cognitive skills, improved academic self-esteem, and greater self control, and they change schools much less often. The improvement of the children has an amazing impact on the incarcerated parent, too, with significantly reduced recidivism of the parent after release.

Proposed Solutions:

Executive: Require the Federal Bureau of Prisons to adopt policies to ensure prisoners have access to services/programs that will reduce barriers to reentry.  These services/programs should include all of those listed in the proposed "reentry behind bars" bill listed below.

Legislative Appropriations (Solutions w/ Funding Requests):

1. Pass the Federal Prison Work Incentive Act of 2008 (H.R. 7089)

  • Amend 18 USC §§ 4161-4165

2. Draft and introduce a "reentry behind bars" bill that would provide grants to states to provide programs to better prepare prisoners for reentry such as the following:

  • drug treatment programs in prison for all drug offenders as well as funding for the Residential Substance Abuse Treatment (RSAT) program provided that they do not impose additional penalties on participants;
  • government-issued ID cards upon release;
  • enrollment for Medicaid prior to release (so that it is available upon release);
  • alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders;
  • merit-based reductions in sentences for non-violent offenders;
  • SSA prerelease agreement;
  • a requirement that individuals under 18 shall not be housed in adult facilities;
  • restore Pell Grant eligibility to prisoners;
  • access to clean needles and condoms in order to reduce the incidence of HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, and other illnesses;
  • access to educational programs/job training for every prisoner;
  • access to religious services;
  • transportation to prisons for prisoners' families;
  • opportunities for parents in prison to visit with their children; and
  • regulate costs of collect calls from prisons.

3. Draft and introduce legislation to track the success of former BOP prisoners reentering society (in terms of employment, housing, education, recidivism, etc.).  This is a recommendation of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons.


Executive: Federal Bureau of Prisons, DOJ

Legislative Branch: Senate and House Judiciary Committees and/or Appropriations Committees


Executive Branch: In his January 2004 State of the Union Address, President Bush expressed the need to address high recidivism rates in his statement:

In the past, we've worked together to bring mentors to children of prisoners, and provide treatment for the addicted, and help for the homeless. Tonight I ask you to consider another group of Americans in need of help. This year, some 600,000 inmates will be released from prison back into society. We know from long experience that if they can't find work, or a home, or help, they are much more likely to commit crime and return to prison. So tonight, I propose a four-year, $300 million prisoner re-entry initiative to expand job training and placement services, to provide transitional housing, and to help newly released prisoners get mentoring, including from faith-based groups. America is the land of second chance, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.

Legislative Branch: The Second Chance Act passed Congress and was signed into law in April 2008, as a bipartisan effort to reduce recidivism rates.  It was supported by an extraordinarily broad coalition of advocates, corrections officials, faith-based organizations, liberals, and conservatives.  This was the first federal law of its kind that provides funding to states to reduce barriers to reentry once prisoners are released back into the community.

Additionally, a very small percentage of incarcerated individuals are served by the Residential Substance Abuse Treatment (RSAT) program under the Department of Justice.  This program provides funding for addiction treatment services in state and local correctional facilities, in addition to aftercare services for individuals released back into the community.

The Federal Work Incentive Act of 2008, H.R. 7089, introduced by Representative Danny Davis of Illinois, establishes a process by which federal prisoners can earn merit-based early releases. Under H.R. 7089, all prisoners who have been given sentences other than life and who have exhibited a willingness to follow prison regulations are eligible for deductions from their sentences. Prisoners who have participated in industrial work or service programs are eligible for a further deduction.

Potential Allies, Potential Opposition, and Public Opinion:

Potential Allies:

  • Mental health advocates
  • Homelessness/housing advocates
  • Prisoners' rights advocates
  • Drug policy reform advocates
  • Corrections officials and some others in law enforcement
  • Youth advocates
  • Progressive and conservative faith-based organizations
  • Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons
  • Addiction treatment and prevention advocates
  • Public Policy Section of the Academy of Criminal Justice Scientists
  • Center for Community Alternatives
  • Justice Policy Institute
  • Prison Legal News
  • ACLU
  • International CURE
  • Virginia CURE

Potential Opposition: Some prosecutors and fiscal conservatives due to the cost of funding programs.

Public Opinion: According to a 2006 National Council on Crime and Delinquency report, U.S. voters favor rehabilitation for prisoners as opposed to a punishment-only system by a margin of eight to one. The report also concluded that an overwhelming majority of American voters support the Second Chance Act, and more than eighty percent of voters feel that job training, medical care, affordable housing and student loans are important elements of crime prevention. A 2001 study by Belden, Russonello & Stewart commissioned by the ACLU, found that three in four Americans support drug rehabilitation over incarceration for non-violent drug offenders.

The NCCD report can be found online at: http://www.nccd-crc.org/nccd/pubs/2006april_focus_zogby.pdf.

The Belden, Russonello & Stewart findings can be accessed online at: http://www.njisj.org/reports/eagleton_report.html.


On barriers to reentry:

  • Charlie Sullivan, CURE
  • Gene Guerrero, Open Society Policy Center
  • Pat Nolan, Prison Fellowship
  • Council of State Governments, Reentry Project

On drug policies:

  • Graham Boyd, Drug Law Reform Project of the ACLU
  • Nkechi Taifa, Open Society Policy Center
  • Eric Sterling, Criminal Justice Policy Foundation
  • Jenny Collier, independent consultant (formerly at the Legal Action Center)

On youth in adult facilities:

  • Liz Ryan, Campaign for Youth Justice

For Further Information:

Pat Nolan's article on strengthening families can be found online at: http://www.justicefellowship.org/article.asp?ID=8031.

For more information about the Second Chance Act, please visit: http://www.reentrypolicy.org/government_affairs/second_chance_act.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 19 November 2008 16:48
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