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
III. Impact on the Individual
IV. Impact on the Family
V. Impact on the Community
VI. Looking Toward the Future
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.
II. How We Got Here
The extraordinary growth in the number of people incarcerated in America can be traced, on one level, to a series of public policy choices made by public officials: legislators who enacted sentencing reforms such as mandatory minimums, truth-in-sentencing laws, parole abolition, and three-strikes laws; prosecutors, judges, and parole board members who exercised their discretion in favor of more frequent and longer prison sentences; and parole and probation officers who were more likely to find violations of conditions of supervision and return parolees and probationers to prison. These shifts in public policy, in turn, reflected a political calculation that the public wanted its elected and appointed officials to be tough on crime.
According to an analysis by Blumstein and Beck (2005), the criminal justice system has indeed become more punitive over time. The probability that an arrest would result in imprisonment more than doubled, from 13% to 28%, between 1980 and 2001. This analysis also underscores an important point: The growth of the prison population between these years is not due to the increase in crime. In fact, the prison population continued to grow throughout the 1990s despite a decrease in crime rates. In other words, America is placing more people in prison not because there is more crime but because America has chosen to rely on more imprisonment as a response to crime.
The nation’s war on drugs has also been a major factor in the growth in imprisonment in America. Whereas the per capita rate of incarceration for most serious crimes increased significantly between 1980 and 2001—for murder (201%), sexual assault (361%), robbery (65%), and assault (306%)—the rate of incarceration for drug offenses increased by 930% (Travis, 2005). The level of punitiveness for drug offenses also increased during this time frame. In 1980, there were 2 prison admissions for every 100 drug arrests. By 1996, the rate had increased to 8 prison admissions for every 100 drug arrests. It is clear that the nation has decided that prison is the preferred response to drug crime and, as a result, 20% of the state prison population and over half of the federal prison population now comprises people convicted of drug crimes (Sabol et al., 2007), up from 6% and 25% in 1980.
There is a third factor contributing to the growth in incarceration: the fact that people in prison are serving more time than they did before. Between 1990 and 1999, the average time a person spent in prison increased 32% (Hughes, Wilson, & Beck, 2001). The increase in the amount of time being served by people in prison can be attributed to three developments. First, legislatures have increased the length of prison sentences overall by implementing mandatory minimums and truth-in-sentencing laws. Second, over the past quarter century, the nation has witnessed a significant shift in sentencing philosophy. For a 50-year period prior to the mid- 1970s, every state in the nation, and the federal government, operated under a regime of indeterminate sentencing. Under this system, state legislatures would set broad ranges of possible sentences that could be imposed for various offenses; judges would impose sentences within those ranges; and parole boards would typically determine the actual date of the release from prison, weighing a variety of factors, including the prisoner’s progress toward rehabilitation and his or her prospects for success upon return to the community. Beginning in 1976, a number of states passed legislation abolishing release by parole boards. In that year, about two thirds of prisoners were released by parole boards; by the end of the century, that level had declined to one quarter (Travis, 2005). Over roughly the same period of time, the nation increased the level of supervision—and the nature of supervision—of those released fromprison. For four decades prior to 1970, about 2 of 5 prisoners released to the community were placed on parole supervision.As a result of the new legislation in the late 1970s, the number of individuals supervised by parole agencies ballooned from 220,000 in 1980 to 725,000 by the end of the century.
The third development is that simultaneously, the nature of supervision changed, evolving away from a servicesand- supervision mission toward a surveillance and law enforcement mission (Petersilia, 2003). Under this new mind-set, which reflected the general national preference for retribution over rehabilitation, parole agents were more inclined to find violations of the conditions of supervision and more likely to revoke supervision and return the parolee to prison. As a result, the number of parole revocations, including for violations of technical conditions of parole and for new crimes, increased sevenfold between 1980 and 2000. In 1980, only 17% of state prison admissions were parole violators; by 1999, that percentage had doubled, to 35% (Travis & Lawrence, 2002). Thus, this growth in the population under parole supervision, combined with the increased use of parole revocations, has resulted in an even larger prison population.
The reality that America now leads the world in its rate of incarceration, and has departed radically from its own history of low incarceration rates, can be traced to a variety of factors, but the predominant factor is the emergence of an unprecedented level of punitiveness toward people who violate the law. Running through this public posture is a powerful racial dimension. As was demonstrated by the infamousWillie Horton episode from the 1988 presidential campaign, racial stereotypes are often infused into public discussions about crime policy, and we face the undeniable truth that the impact of mass incarceration, and the unprecedented level of prisoner reentry, is felt most acutely in urban communities of color.
III. Impact on the Individual
The impact of the era of mass incarceration is experienced, of course, most directly by the millions of people in prison, who struggle to adapt to the conditions in prison, maintain contact with families, anticipate the day they will be released from confinement, and overcome the stigma associated with being an “ex-con.” Over the past two decades, the length of prison stay has increased, the percentage of prisoners receiving services has declined, and the frequency of family visits has dropped, so the individual prison experience is demonstrably different than in years past.
Adapting a reentry perspective on the realities of imprisonment—in other words, realizing that everyone in prison ultimately returns home, and then asking whether they are ready for that journey—would call on prisons to take a more active role in preparing individuals for release. Through this lens, prisons can be viewed as an opportunity to engage incarcerated individuals in programs designed to help develop the skills needed to find employment upon release, maintain a substance-free lifestyle, and reestablish prosocial ties to the community.
The magnitude of this challenge is clear. The majority of men and women behind bars are from disadvantaged communities where there are limited opportunities and resources available. The incarcerated population is at a great disadvantage compared with the general population in terms of educational achievement, access to quality health care, and legitimate employment opportunities. For example, incarcerated individuals have lower levels of literacy, lower high school completion rates, and more limited postsecondary educational experience than the general population (Crayton & Neusteter, 2008). Adequately addressing the needs of incarcerated people and individuals under supervision in the community has the potential to help increase public safety by decreasing the likelihood of the individual engaging in criminal activity or causing harm to those in the community upon his or her release. However, despite the skills and education the individual might obtain during his or her incarceration, upon release, a number of barriers stand in the way of his or her successful transition to free society.
The consequences of a criminal conviction are great and can be difficult to overcome. Many formerly incarcerated people are subject to a network of legislatively defined sanctions after release. These sanctions, known as invisible punishments, were not imposed by the judge at the time of the sentence and are poorly understood by the general public (Travis, 2002), but they pose significant barriers to the individual’s efforts to achieve full reintegration. Also, consistent with the general trend toward greater punitiveness, the network of invisible punishment has also been expanded significantly over the past two decades. Individuals with felony convictions for drug offenses are now ineligible for public assistance and food stamps, can be excluded from public housing, and can be denied student loans. State legislatures and Congress have placed significant sectors of the labor market off limits to individuals with felony records. Most states bar individuals on parole or probation supervision from exercising the right to vote, and some states ban felons from voting for life (King, 2008).
The cumulative effect of these barriers to reintegration can have significant negative life consequences. As was mentioned earlier, the individuals returning from incarceration disproportionately come from, and return to, disadvantaged urban communities, typically communities of color. Prior to incarceration, many of these individuals relied on what limited governmental resources are available to them. However, after incarceration, many of these individuals will be unable to access the network of support that existed prior to their incarceration. For example, they might not be able to return to their families because of policies banning them from public housing. They might no longer be able to access the safety net of welfare benefits. Preventing people with criminal histories from accessing governmental assistance is not only a question of extended punishment but also an issue of public safety. Denying individuals access to services could increase the likelihood that the individual will return to criminal activities to support himself and his family.
One of the first priorities of an individual upon release is securing a place to live. Some have a home to return to and a family to welcome them back. For others, there is no family to return to, either because of broken family ties or an unwillingness on the part of family members to allow the individual to return home. People being released from prison without a place to live will face a number of challenges in accessing housing, both in the public and private housing markets. The majority of housing available in the United States is found in the private housing market. The private market is generally beyond reach for most individuals being released from prison. Landlords often conduct credit checks, or criminal background checks, which would disqualifymost individuals with felony records. Moreover, state legislatures have enacted legislation banning individuals convicted of certain offenses—sex crimes and some drug offenses—from living within designated geographic areas. Other laws require community notification whenever a person who has been convicted of a sex crime moves into their neighborhood, placing another formidable barrier to successful reintegration. The public housing market—both public housing developments and housing made available through Section 8 vouchers—is also off limits to some individuals returning from prison. Under federal legislation, public housing managers are authorized to deny public housing services to individuals convicted of designated offenses. Not only is the individual at risk, but his or her family may be evicted for continuing criminal activity, if it does occur. So, the network of support that in some instances may help with successful reentry is denied to some individuals coming home.
For some individuals leaving prison, the only housing option is a homeless shelter. Research on the connection between homelessness and prisoner reentry has demonstrated that a larger percentage of people living in homeless shelters were recently incarcerated, and many of them will return to jail or prison (Metraux & Culhane, 2004). Many jurisdictions around the United States have sought to interrupt this cycling in and out of prison and shelter, creating transitional housing options for people coming out of prison and supported housing options for people living in homeless shelters.
Contributing to the ex-con stigma are employment bans and hiring practices that prevent formerly incarcerated individuals from obtaining jobs. After housing, employment is one of the fundamental needs of an individual leaving prison. The existence of employment bans are understandable is certain situations. For example, many would agree that it would not be appropriate for a person convicted of a sex crime perpetrated against a child to have a job working at a child care facility. However, many employment bans are blanket policies that affect all people with criminal histories, regardless of their crimes. In the United States, people with felony convictions are denied employment or licenses in over 800 occupations (Cromwell, Alarid, & del Carmen, 2005). Such occupations include cosmetology, barber, emergency services, and practicing law.
Moreover, employers have virtually unlimited access to potential employees’ criminal backgrounds. Employer discrimination against people with criminal histories is not a new phenomenon; however, the advent of online databases— many of which have been deemed inaccurate or as missing information—has increased opportunities for discrimination. In addition, it is customary for applicants to come across a question on a job application or in an interview that inquires about a person’s criminal history. For many formerly incarcerated people, the answer to the question “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” will be the reason they do not get the job. For that reason, some jurisdictions have joined what is known as the “ban the box” campaign (Henry & Jacobs, 2007). In these jurisdictions, background checks are allowed only after the job applicant has been determined otherwise eligible for the position in question, and the final hiring decision will be made only after an assessment of the nexus between the behavior leading to the conviction and the requirements for the job.
The net effect of these barriers to employment is that individuals who have served time in prison face significantly diminished earnings prospects. According to analysis by labor market economists, individuals with prison records will experience a 10% diminution in earnings over their lifetimes (Western & Pettit, 2000). To interrupt this trajectory toward lower employment outcomes, and the economic marginalization that is implied, some jurisdictions around the country are experimenting with programs that offer transitional employment to individuals returning from prison, helping them get back on their feet until they can find permanent employment.
In addition to connecting with family, finding housing, and securing work, people coming home from prison often face significant challenges in connecting with health care services. The prison population presents health problems that are significantly higher than found in the general population. The prevalence of a variety of communicable diseases—including HIV–AIDS, hepatitis, tuberculosis, and sexually transmitted diseases—is between 4 to 10 times higher in prison than in the general population (National Commission on Correctional Health Care, 2002). The rates of mental illness are also higher. Three quarters of those currently incarcerated have histories of drug and/or alcohol addiction. Whatever the quality of health care in prison—and there is substantial variation in these services—the process of reentry poses a challenge in terms of connecting the returning prisoner to appropriate community-based services. In some instances, this is an acute need, as in the case of medication to treat an individual’s mental illness or of continuing care for HIV–AIDS. In other instances, the period of reentry presents high probabilities of relapse to risky behavior, as in the case of someone with a history of addiction, or challenges to mental health when dealing with the stresses of a return to free society.
Finally, one of the greatest challenges facing individuals returning home is to avoid future criminal behavior. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, two thirds of returning prisoners are rearrested for one or more serious crimes within 3 years of their release from prison (Langan & Levin, 2002). Fifty percent of them are returned to prison, half of them for a new crime and half for a parole violation. This overwhelming reality of reentry means that the other efforts to secure reintegration—by getting a job, reconnecting with family, securing housing, and accessing health care—can all be for naught if the formerly incarcerated man or woman is rearrested for a new crime. One aspiration of the reentry movement is that the innovations in reentry programs will result in reductions in the recidivism rates across the nation. Any significant progress in this direction could have beneficial effects in communities struggling with high crime rates. As the size of the reentry cohort has increased over the years, and rates of violent crime have decreased since the early 1990s, the share of arrests attributable to the reentry cohort has increased, meaning that any success in reducing criminal behavior among returning prisoners could yield measurable public safety benefits.
IV. Impact on the Family
The effects of incarceration and reentry extend beyond individuals who have had direct experience with the criminal justice system. Family members of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated also feel the harmful effects of the experience of their family members being arrested; removed to prison for, on average, nearly 3 years; and then returned to the home, placed on parole supervision, and in many cases cycling in and out of prison. Removing a parent from the home not only interrupts the function of the traditional family but also removes a source of income because one less adult is working. This loss often forces the remaining family members—usually the mother—to take on additional employment, thus reducing time for parenting. Furthermore, family members are often left to cover costs associated with incarceration itself: Providing money to the incarcerated family member, accepting collect phone calls, and traveling long distances for visitation are expenses that add up over years of incarceration.
Little is known about the effects of incarceration on children. It is clear, however, that the reach of imprisonment extends deeply into the population of minor children in America. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has reported that at least 1.5 million children have a parent who is currently incarcerated, and another 10 million have had at least one parent incarcerated at some point in their lives (Mumola, 2000). They represent 2% of all minor children in America. As with the incarcerated population generally, the racial profile of these children is revealing. A sobering 7% of all African American minor children in the United States currently have a parent in prison.
The separation of a parent from his or her child can have great consequences, both for the parent and for the child. The contacts between parent and child during incarceration are infrequent, strained, under artificial conditions, and costly.At the time of release, reestablishment of the parent– child relationship is enormously difficult, and sometimes impossible. The passage of time, the shame and stigma of the parental incarceration, and the absence of positive interactions all pose barriers to successful reconnection between parent and child. Yet, not withstanding these barriers, the parent–child bond is often powerful and resilient. For some individuals leaving prison, the opportunity to create, or reestablish, a positive relationship with their children provides strong motivation to success in the reentry process. However, the overwhelming reality remains, namely, that the era of mass incarceration has, in effect, cast a long shadow across the next generation as more and more young Americans are growing up having lost their parents to imprisonment. Little is known about the intergenerational consequences of this reality.
On a more macro level, the removal of larger numbers of men, sending them to prison, and returning them home with significant new social challenges in terms of participation in the world of work and other institutions of civil society, has created communities that are experiencing new realities in the relationships between men and women. In these communities the pool of marriageable men is significantly reduced, contributing to an increase in the number of single mothers (Braman, 2002). It is likely that the process of removing so manymen fromfamilies and communities has a great impact on early childhood development of the community’s children, the dating relationships of its teenagers, the family formation behaviors of its young adults, and the long-term shape of family life. However, research in this area is lacking, and it is impossible to fully understand the impacts of incarceration and reentry on children and families.
V. Impact on the Community
The effects of mass incarceration and prisoner reentry also extend beyond the formerly incarcerated individuals and their family members. In many ways, the most profound effects of these phenomena are experienced at the community level, because the ripple effects of imprisonment are felt in virtually every aspect of community life. In every city inAmerica, the majority of individuals sent to prison come from a small number of neighborhoods. These are typically communities of color, which are already facing other challenges of lowperforming schools, poor health care, weak labor markets, inadequate housing, and high rates of crime. In the era of mass incarceration these communities have been asked to take on an unprecedented social responsibility: the reintegration of record numbers of returning prisoners, mostly men, who have been taken out of the natural rhythms of community life and are now expected to regain their footing.
The costs of the high rates of incarceration can be calculated at a community level.Analysts have demonstrated that there are certain blocks in central urban neighborhoods with high rates of incarceration for which taxpayers pay over $1 million a year to house, in prison or jail, the men and women from that block. According to one analysis, in Brooklyn,NewYork, there are 35 such “million dollar blocks” (Cadora, Swartz, & Gordon, 2003). This analysis provides the basis for a provocative policy exercise, namely, asking whether the taxpayers could get better public safety results by investing a portion of the $1 million in strategies other than high rates of imprisonment of the block’s residents.
These communities bear another cost. The high levels of arrest activity, incarceration, reentry, and supervision have permeated community life and have weakened the social networks and relationships that provide the foundation for an orderly society. Some scholars have concluded that the high rates of incarceration have so weakened the forces that exert informal social control that the nation’s prison policies have had the unintended and ironic effect of actually increasing crime rates, even though these policies were originally advanced as a way to reduce crime (Clear, Rose, Waring, & Scully, 2003).
The impact of incarceration on individuals can also translate into larger social problems. Computer software now allows researchers to create maps of communities based on traits such as crime rates; incarceration rates; and other social factors, such as poverty rates and rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Using this technology, and looking at the reentry phenomenon through the lens of public health, one can see how a problem at the individual level quickly translates to a problem for the community. As previously mentioned, many individuals released from incarceration have little or no access to health care upon release. Like other communicable diseases, the rate of STIs among the incarcerated population is higher than that of the general population. Men and women returning from prison return to their partners, some to multiple partners, exposing them to diseases they might not even know they have.Mapping research conducted at the community level suggests a relationship between incarceration and communities with high rates of STIs (Thomas, Levandowski, Isler, Torrone, &Wilson, 2008).
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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