Prisoner Reentry

VI. Looking Toward the Future

The growth of incarceration in America has slowed down in recent years, but it has not abated. Some states have experienced declines in their prison population, but the overall trend remains a growth trend, even though the rates of violent crime are at the lowest level in a generation. There are some signs, however, that the policy environment is shifting. A number of states have eliminated mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, others have modified their truth-insentencing calculations to allow shorter sentences, and still others have adopted parole supervision reforms that have reduced the number of individuals sent back to prison for parole violations. Perhaps most noteworthy has been a campaign to return voting rights to hundreds of thousands of formerly incarcerated individuals who were denied the franchise.

The reentry movement has grown significantly in the decade following Attorney General Reno’s call for proposals for reentry partnerships and reentry courts in 1999. Now, the terminology of reentry is well accepted, and the justice reform community has embraced the challenge of improving reentry programs. Every state in the nation and many urban jurisdictions have established reentry task forces to bring together the public and private entities that work with individuals leaving prison. These coalitions now include active participation of other service sectors that were not always active in justice reform initiatives, such as public health professionals, groups working on low-income housing, organizations devoted to workforce development, and agencies advocating for child and family welfare. It is indeed ironic that these service and advocacy communities have found common cause with the justice agencies working on prisoner reentry. One unavoidable consequence of high rates of incarceration is the high rate of overlap between the population involved in the justice system and those seeking to improve public health, child and family well-being, employment rates, and adequate housing.

One of the most significant developments in this regard was the enactment of the Second Chance Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush on April 9, 2008. In his 2004 State of the Union Address, President Bush asked his audience to consider the challenges facing people leaving prison: “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.” He then proposed a 4-year, $300 million prisoner reentry initiative, saying that “America is the land of the second chance, and when the gates of prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.”

The Second Chance Act, taking its name from President Bush’s eloquent statement about the difficulties of prisoner reentry, signals an important moment in criminal justice policy in America, a time when the federal government exercised leadership in helping individuals, families, and communities deal with the realities of reentry. This remarkable bipartisan consensus leaves unaddressed, however, the fact that the country has chosen to place those individuals in prison in the first instance. Some advocates for policies that would reduce America’s reliance on incarceration have applauded this new national focus on prisoner reentry, believing that a pragmatic discussion of the impact of incarceration on individuals leaving prison will inevitably lead to questioning the sentencing policies that put them in prison. Proponents of this hopeful view can point to a range of sentencing reform initiatives to support their view that the reentry movement will soften the ground for broader reconsideration of the country’s punishment policies. Others argue, however, that the focus on prisoner reentry has been a distraction from the more difficult task of rolling back the nation’s imprisonment juggernaut. They point to the continuing rise in the rate of incarceration, even in a time of stable crime rates, as evidence of the intractable nature of America’s unprecedented reliance on prison as a response to crime. They ask a difficult rhetorical question:What if all the energy now devoted to prisoner reentry had been focused on sentencing reforms?

Only time will tell whether the rediscovery of prisoner reentry in the era of mass incarceration has any influence on the direction of crime policy in general, but even without an answer to that intriguing question there is no doubt that over the past 10 years the United States has, belatedly, recognized one of the inevitable consequences of the rampup of imprisonment, namely, the return home each year of hundreds of thousands of individuals, mostly men, who have been removed from their families and communities and held in the nation’s prisons. This overdue recognition, on its own terms, has the potential to restore a human dimension to our understanding of the consequences of our policy choices and to provide common ground for a movement that would ameliorate the negative effects of those policies. The reentry movement has been characterized by a burst of programmatic innovation; an array of federal, state, and foundation funding initiatives; unprecedented scholarly attention; the engagement of formerly incarcerated individuals; and a sense of optimism, all of which will serve the larger cause of justice.

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