Getting Out of Jail and Staying Out

Too many former inmates end up right back in prison within three years. This innovative Chicago program can help change that.

National Journal

Each year, some 700,000 men and women are released from U.S. prisons. If past statistics hold, about half of them will be re-incarcerated within three years. One of the best indicators that someone has successfully reintegrated into society is stable employment. That can be a challenge even in times of low unemployment. Dedicated social-service organizations and transitional job providers can sometimes find work for individual former prisoners. But no one program has yet cracked the code on how to improve long-term employment outcomes and reduce recidivism for a whole population.

Safer Foundation, an Illinois-based nonprofit, just completed a demonstration that its funders hope will prove that with an intense, community-wide investment, a neighborhood can cut its 18-month recidivism rate by half. "You can't treat people in a vacuum," says Rochelle Perry, the foundation's director of client services. By better coordinating traditional support services like employment programs and mental-health treatment, and incorporating new approaches like outreach to families, the Safer Return reentry initiative aimed to improve not just the lives of former prisoners but of everyone in Chicago's Garfield Park neighborhood.

Between April 2008 and October 2011, Safer Return sought to enroll every Illinois Department of Corrections inmate released to Garfield Park. The work began with "Welcome Home" panels, hosted at prisons across the state, for prisoners expected to return to target ZIP codes. Those who decided to participate gained access to job-placement services, mental health and substance-abuse treatment, support groups, and neighborhood activities, such as a back-to-school picnic hosted at a church. In three years, the initiative--which was supported by a $5 million MacArthur Foundation grant--served 727 former prisoners. An additional $1.5 million MacArthur grant is supporting an Urban Institute evaluation of the demonstration project.

Safer Foundation has spent 40 years helping individuals with criminal records to find jobs, and it was a key player in structuring the neighborhood-wide project. The organization has found that partnerships are key to successful prisoner reentry, whether they're with local employers or with social-service providers who can help former prisoners find housing or mental-health services. Safer clients who are employed for at least 30 days have a 22 percent recidivism rate over three years; clients who receive both supportive services and employment services have a 13 percent recidivism rate. Statewide, 52 percent of inmates released in Illinois are re-incarcerated within three years.

The Safer Return project tightened the connections between Safer and some long-standing partners while also adding new community connections. Partner organizations included Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities, a nonprofit that helps individuals overcome substance addiction and manage mental illness; National Alliance for the Employment of the Formerly Incarcerated, a mentoring group headed by formerly incarcerated individuals; and the People's Community Development Association of Chicago, a faith-based group. The Illinois Department of Corrections gave the effort its full support, from giving parole officers a neighborhood-based caseload to sharing data. Parole officers, case managers, and Safer Foundation sector managers were constantly in contact, sharing information about each individual's progress.

"There's no reason for us to believe that something like this wouldn't be successful," says Urban Institute's Jocelyn Fontaine of Safer Return. The demonstration project was comprehensive, well funded, and it drew upon best practices — and promising new approaches, like paying attention to needs at the family level. Family members were encouraged to attend welcome-home panels and reentry circles, the mentoring groups organized by the National Alliance for the Employment of the Formerly Incarcerated. Case managers were trained in the family case management model pioneered by a New York program, La Bodega de la Familia. The program significantly lowered rates of substance abuse by addressing needs at a family level: recognizing, for example, that a young addict will be more likely to stay in treatment if his mom finds a job that allows her to support him. "It's just bringing all that we know into one place at one time," Fontaine says. She and her colleagues will have completed their analysis by 2014.

If analysis shows that the Safer Return initiative reduced re-incarceration costs, IDOC or state politicians might be encouraged to shift public funding into a permanent initiative. But to date, most rigorous evaluations of other reentry programs have found only a small reduction in recidivism, said Steve Raphael, public-policy professor at the University of California (Berkeley). That could be because studies that compare a group receiving a particular intervention gauge its efficacy against a comparison group that may be finding help elsewhere.

The limited impact of prisoner reentry programs also reflects the monumental challenge they face. The average state prisoner has a 10th-grade education, over two-thirds have a history of heavy drug use, and many suffer from mental illnesses, according to a 2008 Brookings Institution report from Harvard sociology professor Bruce Western. Many incarcerated individuals are from poor, minority neighborhoods like Garfield Park, where jobs are scarce and criminal gangs can be among the strongest community institutions.

Incarceration reduces former inmates' annual earnings by 40 percent, controlling for age, education, and region of residence, a 2010 Pew report coauthored by Western found. Organizations like Safer Foundation can help make employers feel comfortable taking on an employee with a criminal record, by screening out formerly incarcerated individuals who aren't ready to hold down a steady job. But employment programs can't lift the lifelong stigma of a criminal record, or change state laws that restrict where formerly incarcerated people can live and work.

Shifting public funds toward programs that help former criminals adjust to normal life is a political risk that, so far, the data on prisoner reentry programs doesn't strongly support. "It is so difficult to shift money away from incarceration," says Ethel Muhammad, chief operating officer at the Safer Foundation.

Despite the MacArthur Foundation's optimistic prediction back in 2008, Perry doesn't think the Safer Return initiative is going to cut 18-month recidivism rates in half. "Fifty percent is a big number," she says. The place-based approach, while a promising idea, was hard to execute: Not every former prisoner in the community agreed to enroll, and many left the neighborhood before completing a year of intervention.

Safer Return's biggest impact may come from the use of neighborhood-based parole offices. By fostering communication and trust between parole officers and local social-service providers, Safer Return helped officers feel more comfortable evaluating their charges' behavior on a case-by-case basis. "They would not automatically violate somebody [report them for violating conditions of parole] at the first relapse," Perry says. More information made it easier to navigate the gray area of parole terms, and to judge when individuals have just hit a small bump in the road to recovery and when they were liable to become a public safety threat.

Incarceration rates in the United States have more than quadrupled over the past 30 years, as sentences lengthen for everything from drug offenses to violent crimes. "The reentry needs are huge," says Raphael. No one outside the prison construction industry has an interest in watching recidivism rates remain high. If the neighborhood approach pioneered by Safer Return turns out to have a significant impact in helping former inmates successfully reenter society, even skittish tough-on-crime politicians may have to take a closer look.