By Linda F. Hersey
October 21, 2020
Deshawn Grange says he is proud to have not just one but two jobs. He is a part-time worker assembling vehicle doors at a Tesla plant in California. He also is a monitor at a public restroom owned by the City of San Francisco.
Grange, a San Francisco native, said he landed the jobs through assistance from a prison re-entry program that connected him to life-skills training, job preparation and employment. “I work all the time now,” said Grange, who did not use his real name for this story.
With two thirds of state prisoners in the U.S. re-arrested within 36 months of their release, prison-to-work or so-called re-entry programs are a path for former offenders to enjoy a law-abiding life. The goal is to provide wraparound services, from help with housing to finding a job, to lower the risk of returning to jail or prison.
A growing body of evidence shows that offenders need a diverse range of support services as they transition from incarceration to their communities, to lessen the chance of re-arrest and landing back in prison or jail, according to the National Institute of Justice.
Research shows that the better educated and/or older offender is less likely to re-commit crimes, according to the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization.
HIGH RATE OF INCARCERATION
Incarceration numbers in the U.S. are staggering for a western nation. More than two million people are behind bars in the United States, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
More than a half-million Americans each year are released from prisons and jails after serving time.
Many go back to the communities and friends they left when they originally broke the law and got into trouble. The return to their former lives poses risks and challenges.
The ex-offenders face significant barriers:
- Having a criminal record makes it hard to find work.
- Many have a history of drug addiction.
- Offenders are less likely to have completed high school or have the skills to sustain a job.
- Many have no place to live.
Advocates for people who have served time focus efforts more and more on education, employment and housing. These support services, studies show, can determine whether a former convict succeeds or fails after release.
To reduce the $40 billion spent by state governments annually for corrections without compromising public safety, advocates say it is critical to identify programs and services like these that improve outcomes.
FAITH-BASED PROGRAMS REACH OUT TO EX-OFFENDERS
An array of nonprofits in the U.S., many of them faith-based, aim to help offenders post-release. Saved by Grace of the San Francisco Bay area, for example, is staffed by ex-felons and focuses on both the spiritual and economic needs of former offenders.
The agency offers case management, job training, education resources and help with writing resumes and contacting employers. The agency provides a positive and welcoming community with church pastors, employers, caseworkers and advocates who represent a new network of friends and associates for the former offender.
The agency not only directs former offenders to education and employment, it also tries to provide a constructive alternative to peer pressure and negative influences former offenders may encounter again in their communities.
“Throughout my life I have made some good and bad decisions, but through it all I truly believe God had, and still has, his hand on my life,” Pastor Ronnie Muniz states about his former criminal life and his founding of the prison-re-entry agency, Saved by Grace.
A FOCUS ON OUTCOMES
Nationally, two initiatives known as SVORI and the Second Chance Act, have shown the most promise and continue to evolve, according to research by the National Institute of Justice.
- SVORI – the Serious and Violent Offender Re-entry Initiative — is considered the pioneering federal grant program for integrating support services for former offenders, including job and life-skills training, education, and treatment and release plans. Research shows that participation in SVORI-funded programs have resulted in fewer re-arrests and longer times between arrests, compared with former prisoners who did not participate. Women, especially, experienced better outcomes in the areas of employment and overcoming substance abuse.
- The Second Chance Act, reauthorized by President Trump in 2018, is a follow-up to SVORI. Its goal is to improve outcomes for former offenders. In looking at outcomes for close to 1,000 former offenders in Second Chance, the National Institute of Justice found that the men and women had better rates of long-term employment and earnings but were not less likely to be re-arrested. Researchers are trying to determine why and how to change that. The legislation signed by Trump provides federal funding to programs considered essential to an offender’s re-entry.
Now a new generation of programs and research aims to identify high-risk populations that are more prone to re-offend and land back in jail or prison, according to the National Institute of Justice. Former offenders in this at-risk group may have literacy challenges, dropped out of high school, struggled with drug addiction, and a long rap sheet, including with the juvenile justice system.
The First Step Act (FSA), also signed into law in 2018, centers on developing a risk and needs assessment for the Federal Bureau of Prisons to better identify this high-needs population. Increasingly, a strong body of research shows that successful outcomes do not depend on just one factor but a whole host of supportive services and positive connections in the community.
Trauma During Re-Entry Study: This report by the Institute for Justice Research and Development looks at the effects of violence and trauma on offenders returning to their communities after serving time.
National Institute of Justice and Recidivism: The institute researches, reviews and evaluates programs for the U.S. Department of Justice.
Prison Policy Initiative: The nonpartisan, nonprofit organization offers research and advocacy around prisons and prison reform in the U.S.
Saved by Grace is a nonprofit California agency that provides supportive services to former inmates returning to their communities.
The Marshall Project is a nonpartisan, national news organization that covers the criminal justice system.