The phenomenon of prisoner reentry reflects the “iron law of imprisonment”: With the exception of those who die in prison, from natural causes or execution, every person sentenced to prison comes home. The buildup in the prison population has inevitably led to an increase in the size of the reentry cohort. In 2007, an estimated 700,000 individuals left state and federal prisons, nearly five times the 150,000 who made similar journeys in the 1970s. Another 9 million individuals will leave local jails each year, constituting another version of the reentry phenomenon.
II. How We Got Here
A defining characteristic of modern America is the nation’s unprecedented level of imprisonment. For the 50-year period leading up to 1972, incarceration rates in America had remained remarkably constant, hovering around 110 per 100,000 population (Blumstein & Beck, 1999). Beginning in 1972, however, the nation has experienced a rise in its prison population every year. The prison population grew during times of war and times of peace, when crime rates rose and when they fell, in the midst of economic boom and economic recession. The increase that began in 1972 has been not only relentless but also substantial. Between 1973 and 2005, the number of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons increased by over 600%. There are now over 1.5 million people living in America’s prisons, translating to an incarceration rate of 496 per 100,000 population (Sabol, Couture, & Harrison, 2007). If the jail population is included, the incarceration rate increases to 751 per 100,000 population and the number of people imprisoned in America totals over 2.3 million.
Viewing the state of imprisonment in America through different lenses underscores the scope and scale of this new reality. The growth of imprisonment has not been distributed evenly across the population; instead, the impact has been felt most acutely in poor urban communities, in particular, communities of color. Today, an African American man faces greater than a 30% probability that he will go to prison during his lifetime (Bonczar, 2003). For Hispanic men, the probability is 17%; for white men it is 6%. Although black men are disproportionately overrepresented in America’s prisons, they are underrepresented in other, more prosocial systems. One such example is the American college system. In his recent book, Harvard sociologist Bruce Western (2007) calculated for specific groups the lifetime risk of incarceration compared with other life events, such as college, military service, and marriage. He found that black men born between 1965 and 1969 are seven times more likely than white men to have served time in prison by their 30s. On the other hand, white men are nearly three times as likely to have earned a bachelor’s degree. Even more startling is the fact that in 2000 there were more black men incarcerated than there were enrolled in college (Schiraldi & Ziedenberg, 2002).
The American reliance on punishment as a response to crime also sets it apart from other countries. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies in London (n.d.), the United States, with 5% of the world’s population, accounts for 25% of the world’s prisoners. No other nation deprives such a high percentage of its citizens of their liberty. The incarceration rate in America is 6.2 times that of Canada, 7.8 times that of the United Kingdom, and 12.3 times that of France. Finally, in 2007, the nation passed another milestone: 1 in 100 adult Americans is now behind bars (Warren, 2008). America has entered a new, uncharted territory, without precedent in its own—or any country’s— history. Our punishment policies constitute a new form of American exceptionalism, at dramatic variance with the philosophy and practice of the rest of the world.
Scholars have called this chapter of American history the era of mass incarceration (Drucker, 2002; Mauer & Chesney-Lind, 2002; Pattillo, Weiman, & Western, 2004) and have engaged in robust debate over the impact of high levels of incarceration on various dimensions of our society, including community well-being, family structures, poverty, race relations, labor markets, and voting patterns. One consequence of the era of mass incarceration is clear and inevitable: Many more people are leaving prison each year. The phenomenon of prisoner reentry reflects the “iron law of imprisonment”: With the exception of those who die in prison, from natural causes or execution, every person sentenced to prison comes home (Travis, 2005). The buildup in the prison population has inevitably led to an increase in the size of the reentry cohort. In 2007, an estimated 700,000 individuals left state and federal prisons, nearly five times the 150,000 who made similar journeys in the 1970s. Another 9 million individuals will leave local jails each year, constituting another version of the reentry phenomenon.
Prisoner reentry is not a new phenomenon. Clearly, people have been leaving prisons ever since prisons were first built. Neither is reentry a new phrase. The word reentry was used as early as 1967 in a report published by the federal Department of Health, Education andWelfare. John Irwin’s 1970 book The Felon contains a chapter titled “Reentry” that vividly describes the experience of leaving prison. However, beginning in the late 1990s, with support from the Department of Justice under then-Attorney General Janet Reno, the nation rediscovered prisoner reentry.
To address the unprecedented number of people being released from correctional facilities across the United States, the Justice Department launched a program sponsoring “reentry partnerships” among corrections agencies, police departments, and community organizations. These partnerships were designed to strengthen coordination of services to improve outcomes for people leaving prison. At the same time, the Justice Department spurred the creation of reentry courts around the country, applying lessons learned in other problem-solving courts, such as drug courts, to the unique experiences of formerly incarcerated individuals. The George W. Bush administration continued the federal role in reentry innovation, funding the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative, under which each state was invited to create gubernatorial-level reentry task forces to coordinate reentry services and test new reentry initiatives. A variety of criminal justice organizations undertook reentry programs; national associations of elected officials promoted reentry reform; prominent research institutions designed new studies of the reentry experience and tested the effectiveness of innovative programs; mayors designated staff with responsibility for local reentry initiatives; and national and local foundations awarded millions of dollars to support programs, research, demonstration projects, and policy advocacy in the reentry realm.Within the space of a decade, the nation was engaged in a robust policy conversation about prisoner reentry, and some commentators concluded that this heightened era of interest and innovation constituted a “reentry movement.”
The challenge for scholars, students, policymakers, and practitioners is to link the realities of mass incarceration to the realities of prisoner reentry. Some of the linkages are obvious: A larger prison population translates into more people leaving prison. Some are less direct: The high level of imprisonment may have weakened the capacity of communities to reintegrate the large number of individuals, mostly men, returning home each year. Similarly, the same retributive impulse that led to higher rates of incarceration may pose barriers to successful reentry. Some linkages may be unexpected: The mere fact that so many people are now either imprisoned, under criminal justice supervision, or simply have felony records may create new alliances between social service providers and criminal justice practitioners. For example, the high rate of HIV–AIDS among the population under criminal justice supervision (either incarcerated or formerly incarcerated) means that public health providers working with the population living with HIV–AIDS would be strategically well advised to view the criminal justice population as offering an effective point of intervention.
The following sections of this research paper explore this intersection between the realities of mass incarceration and prisoner reentry. The first section examines the social and political forces that have produced our high level of incarceration. The next three sections highlight the impact of incarceration and reentry at the individual, family, and community levels. The final section provides an analysis of the current state of the reentry movement and some thoughts on the future.