Re-Entry—Ensure Successful Reintegration After Incraceration
History of the Problem
Studies conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and other leading researchers conclude that more than two-thirds of the individuals released from prison are rearrested within three years.1 This year an estimated 700,000 people will leave prison2 and another 12 million will leave local jails.3 They return to communities lacking appropriate support services for substance addiction and mental illness, and with limited job prospects and affordable housing options. Most have children who will depend on them for support, but these families are often impoverished. The prospects for successful reintegration are further compromised by the many collateral consequences of criminal convictions—often recently enacted policies—that make reentry after incarceration enormously difficult.
The costs of failed reentry are not only social, but also fiscal. The federal and state governments spend tens of billions of dollars on corrections, the majority on incarceration. Reducing the number of non-violent offenders in prison and jail by half would save taxpayers $16.9 billion annually.4 The need for fiscally responsible criminal justice reform is a nonpartisan issue with support across the political spectrum. Conservatives recently joined together to establish Right on Crime, a research project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, to put forward a conservatively motivated reform agenda. According to their Statement of Principles:
Conservatives correctly insist that government services be evaluated on whether they produce the best possible results at the lowest possible cost, but too often this lens of accountability has not focused as much on public safety policies as other areas of government. As such, corrections spending has expanded to become the second fastest growing area of state budgets—trailing only Medicaid.5
Fiscal responsibility, social justice, public safety, or good governance—no matter the motivation, the need to examine and adjust our policies to make our communities safer has never been more urgent or obvious.
Accordingly, this section identifies nine obstacles to reentry and makes federal policy recommendations to promote reintegration and reduce recidivism.6 Each issue outlined is vitally important to successful reentry. Without a comprehensive strategy that incorporates employment, education, housing, civic engagement, treatment and health services, as well as welfare assistance, the chances of success diminish and the likelihood of recidivism grows. The federal government plays a critical role here, as it is often federal laws and policies that can either create reentry barriers or eliminate them.
The Second Chance Act
Congress demonstrated the federal commitment to improving reentry when it passed the Second Chance Act of 2007, authorizing $165 million in federal aid to state, local, and tribal governments to support programming to assist people exiting incarceration, including competitive grants to government agencies and nonprofit organizations to provide employment assistance, substance abuse treatment, housing, family services, mentoring, victims support and other services that help reduce recidivism and improve public safety.7
The Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush in April 2008 to combat the “high recidivism rate [that] places a huge financial burden on taxpayers . . . deprives our labor force of productive workers, and . . . families of their daughters and sons, and husbands and wives, and moms and dads.”8 It is now due for reauthorization. It is imperative that it continues to “live up to its name . . . [to] help ensure that where the prisoner's spirit is willing, the community's resources are available.”9
Although the right to vote forms the core of American democracy, one significant group of American citizens is still denied the right to the franchise; 5.3 million Americans are not allowed to vote because of felony convictions.10 Four million of these people live, work, and raise families in our communities, and many others will eventually return after completing their sentences.11 However, because of past convictions, these people are still denied the right to vote In addition, among those individuals with criminal records who are in fact eligible to vote, there is considerable confusion about their eligibility or ineligibility to vote since most “restoration processes are so cumbersome that few [individuals with criminal records] are able to take advantage of them.”12 This confusion results in the de facto disenfranchisement of eligible voters with criminal convictions.13
Denying individuals the right to vote even after they have repaid their debts to society perpetuates the insidious discrimination against this population that makes reentry so difficult. Furthermore, voting promotes reentry because it encourages individuals to become engaged in their communities and to engage in socially responsible conduct.14 In fact, a study by sociologists Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza found that, among persons with a prior arrest, “27% of non-voters were re-arrested over a three-year period, compared with only 12% of voters.”15
Welfare and Food Stamp Benefits for Individuals with Drug Felony Convictions
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act prohibits anyone convicted of a drug-related felony from receiving either federally-funded cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, or food stamps, unless states opt out of or modify the ban.16 Under the ban, which only applies to drug felonies, individuals are barred for life from obtaining cash assistance and food stamps even after completing their sentences or overcoming their addictions. Currently, 13 states have opted out of the ban entirely, and 11 states completely enforce the ban.17 All other states have limited or modified the ban in some way.18
The ban denies necessary cash assistance to individuals seeking to improve their lives without regard to their rehabilitation. It also exacerbates the financial pressures that lead many individuals to commit financially motivated crimes and stress that can trigger relapse into active addiction.19 Furthermore, the ban negatively impacts the innocent children of individuals who have committed drug crimes. Since many individuals with criminal records are parents with employment and income challenges, the ban has devastating consequences for these children, increasing the likelihood that they, too, will become ensnared in cycles of poverty, drug use, and crime.20 The purpose of welfare reform, of which the ban was a small part, was to create incentives for individuals to move from public support to self-sufficient employment. Unfortunately, this provision has the perverse consequence of making it more difficult for individuals to move from lives of dependence on crime and state supervision to lives of employment and contribution. There is no indication that the drug felony ban acts as a deterrent to crime or drug use, and every indication that it acts as a barrier to rehabilitation and successful reentry.
Financial Aid Ban for Students with Drug Convictions
In 1998, the Higher Education Act was amended to prohibit anyone with a drug conviction from receiving federal financial aid for post-secondary education.21 By 2005, the drug offense ban was modified to prohibit federal financial aid for only those individuals convicted of a drug offense while receiving financial aid.22 The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), however, continues to ask about an applicant’s drug offense history without first explaining that drug convictions obtained while the applicant was not receiving federal student financial aid are irrelevant to student aid eligibility. Anecdotal and analogical evidence suggests the question discourages many qualified applicants from further pursuing federal student aid due to their mistaken belief that a conviction in their past excludes them.
The drug offense ban on federal student aid prevents individuals from obtaining the education they need to access better employment opportunities, even though many of those affected by the ban were actively addicted to drugs when they engaged in the conduct for which they were convicted, and have since entered into or completed treatment for their addictions. Education is not only the key to a better life; it is also an important component of a crime-free lifestyle for many people.
In addition to its practical function as a credential in the job market, participation in higher education has been shown to lower recidivism by 15% and 13% for people who earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, respectively.23 Providing individuals with criminal records an opportunity to obtain higher education creates cost savings for state correctional systems. In fact, the Correctional Education Association calculated that states experience a “[return of] at least $2 for every $1 spent in terms of saving in cell space on those who do not return to the system.”24 By preventing individuals from obtaining the education and training necessary to become more desirable candidates for employment and to advance in their careers, the drug felony ban, rather than acting as a deterrent to crime, serves as a barrier to success and to the empowerment of communities where individuals are unlikely to be able to access educational opportunities without financing from the federal government.
Barriers to Housing and Employment
Federal public housing law contains provisions that require or permit local authorities to deny Section 8 and other federally assisted housing to certain individuals. Two classes of applicants are permanently barred from federal public housing eligibility. Any household with a member who either: (i) is subject to a lifetime registration requirement under a state sex offender registration program25 or (ii) has been convicted of methamphetamine production on public housing premises,26 is permanently ineligible for public, Section 8, and other federally assisted housing.
Other provisions in federal law create exclusions from eligibility for public housing for certain individuals, but provide some discretion for these individuals to have their eligibility restored or a limitation on the duration of the exclusion. For example, any tenant who has been evicted from public, federally assisted, or Section 8 housing because of drug-related criminal activity is ineligible for public or federally assisted housing for three years. The housing provider has the discretion to shorten the three year period if the person successfully completes a rehabilitation program approved by the local housing provider, or the circumstances leading to the eviction no longer exist (e.g., the family member responsible for the eviction has died or is imprisoned).27 The three year time period begins to run from the date of the eviction.28
In addition, individuals with criminal records “often find that a conviction record is the main stumbling block in obtaining housing, whether in the private sector or in public and Section 8 supported housing.29 Many housing authorities and private landlords use overly restrictive policies, (e.g. excluding all people with convictions or all people with felony convictions) which results in the exclusion of people with conviction records who pose no threat to the public, tenants or property. “Oftentimes the policies are based on a misunderstanding of federal law, or on the landlord placing a premium on ease of administration, believing that it’s easier to ‘just say no’ to all people with conviction records than to perform individualized analyses of their applications.”30Similarly, while obtaining employment is one of the most important factors for successful reentry, many barriers remain for former prisoners. Unfortunately, individuals with criminal records who are unable to obtain employment are three times more likely to return to prison than those individuals who are able to find work.31
Addiction and RecidivismAddiction is a public health issue with public safety implications. Addiction is an incredibly widespread disease. In fact, estimates of the number of Americans who suffer from diagnosable drug or alcohol disorders are as high as 23.2 million people. Of these, only about 10% have received treatment.32 Furthermore, youth attitudes about substance use are beginning to soften, which generally precedes an increase in drug use.33
Statistics demonstrate the link between addiction and crime, one which accounts for much of the crime in this nation. One in four individuals incarcerated in American prisons and jails is serving time for a drug offense, and the United States incarcerates more people for drugs than any other country. “[O]ffender drug use is involved in more than half of all violent crimes and in 60 to 80 percent of child abuse and neglect cases. It is estimated that 70 percent of the people in state prisons and local jails have abused drugs regularly, compared with approximately nine percent of the general population.”34 Furthermore, in 1991, an astonishing 49% of all individuals incarcerated in federal or state prisons were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of their crime.35 Often, the only time individuals have the opportunity to access addictions services is through their involvement in the criminal justice system. In fact, in 2007, the criminal justice system was the largest source of referrals to the addiction treatment system.36
Untreated alcohol and drug addiction costs society approximately $366 billion per year, and the cost of addiction treatment is 15 times less than the cost of incarcerating a person for a drug-related crime. The Washington State Institute for Public Policy estimates that for every dollar spent on community-based drug treatment, society receives a return of $18.52 in benefits, including reductions in corrections and prosecution costs.37 Fiscally, it makes sense to focus resources on addiction prevention and treatment before untreated addictions create higher costs in the law enforcement and corrections systems. Ensuring that individuals have access to addiction treatment services and reducing or eliminating barriers that prevent individuals from obtaining addiction treatment are ways to improve public health and safety while saving taxpayers money on corrections spending.
Additionally, many individuals face barriers to accessing addition services after they are released from prison, as a result of state laws revoking or limiting the driver’s licenses of some or all drug offenders. In 1992, Congress amended the Federal Highway Apportionment Act to withhold 10% of certain federal highway funds from states that failed to enact and enforce laws that revoke or suspend the driver’s license of an individual convicted of any drug offense for at least six months after the time of conviction.38 States may opt out of the law by limiting the revocation or suspension to those individuals whose convictions were for drug crimes related to driving (i.e. driving under the influence of a controlled substance) or to other limited categories, but they can also impose revocations or suspensions that endure for longer than the six months required by the federal law.
In response, 28 states have enacted laws that automatically suspend or revoke licenses for all or some drug offenders. The remaining states have either adopted laws that suspend or revoke a license only for driving-related convictions, or have opted out of the federal law altogether. Many states provide no opportunity for drivers to obtain restricted licenses so they can get to work, school, or treatment. These misguided and overbroad policies harm communities by making it more difficult for residents to obtain and retain a job, to attend school, or to access needed healthcare, including addiction treatment and recovery support services. This is especially true in suburban and rural areas where public transportation is less developed or non-existent.
Furthermore, federal Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations restrict certain individuals receiving drug addiction treatment from obtaining commercial driver’s licenses (CDL), even though commercial driving is one of the industries in which individuals with criminal records are often able to find work. Currently, DOT regulations prohibit individuals who are receiving methadone and who are stabilized in treatment from obtaining their CDLs. There is an exception to the prohibition against drug use for individuals taking prescribed drugs who have been informed by a medical professional that their prescription drug use will not negatively impact their ability to drive a commercial motor vehicle.39 However, prescribed methadone use is specifically excluded from the exception.40
Mental Health and Income Support for Released Prisoners
Access to federal disability and health benefits is a critical component of successful reentry into the community for individuals released from jail or prison. This is particularly important for individuals with mental illnesses who cycle through corrections facilities repeatedly− often the event leading to arrest is linked to both lack of income and unmet need for services, such as mental health and addiction treatment, and supports, such as housing41 and employment. In a recent study, 16.9 percent of individuals entering jail were found to have a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia or manic depression.42 It is reported that the Los Angeles County Jail, the Cook County (Chicago) Jail and Riker’s Island (New York City) each hold more people with mental illness on any given day than any psychiatric facility in the United States.43 Nearly a quarter of both state prisoners and jail inmates with a mental health problem, compared to a fifth of those without, had served three or more prior incarcerations.44
When an individual enters jail or prison, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits are suspended (after one calendar month),45 and Medicaid benefits are often terminated (although federal law does not require states to terminate Medicaid eligibility.) After 12 consecutive months of suspension, SSI benefits terminate, as well.46 It can take several months to reinstate benefits after termination, and this lag can be critical for individuals with a serious mental illness in need of treatment services (via Medicaid health coverage) and income support (through SSI) in order to thrive in the community.