Initiative Helps Offenders Reenter Society
By Rebecca A. Clay
Ask any expert how well most inmates are prepared for life beyond prison walls, and the answer is usually the same: Not very well at all.
"In many jurisdictions, offenders still just get a cheap suit and a bus ticket," said Cheri Nolan, Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Justice Programs at the U.S. Department of Justice. "Often that bus drops them off at one of the worst places in town for them to return to, a place where decisions about which way they want their life to go are made for them. Quite often it's the local pawn shop and drug dealer who are waiting to welcome them." Not surprisingly, the majority of offenders soon find themselves back behind bars.
Now, SAMHSA has joined Ms. Nolan and representatives from several other Federal entities to try to break that cycle. Last summer, the Federal Government announced $100 million in grants under its new "Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative." Sixty-eight grantees in 49 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are now developing comprehensive programs that give high-risk adult and juvenile offenders the education, job training, life skills, substance abuse and mental health treatment, and other services they need to become productive, law-abiding members of society upon release. The ultimate goal is to improve public safety by making sure released offenders don't return to a life of crime.
In keeping with an emphasis on collaboration at the local level, the initiative is also a collaboration at the Federal level. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (led by SAMHSA), the Department of Justice, and the U.S. Department of Labor provided funding for the initiative. Also participating are the U.S. Departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, Commerce, Agriculture, Veterans Affairs, and Social Security Administration.
"It has taken courage to move this initiative forward," said SAMHSA Administrator Charles G. Curie, M.A., A.C.S.W. "It has taken a willingness to leave agendas and turf issues behind. It took courage to recognize and come to grips with the magnitude of the problem, including the significant numbers of people with mental illness and addictions being housed in correction facilities. And it takes courage to assume shared responsibility for finding community-based solutions for adult and juvenile offenders after incarceration."
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The Revolving Door
|Photo of jail cells (background) (Photo courtesy of Federal Bureau of Prisons)
Finding solutions has become increasingly urgent. Last year, prisons
released an estimated 630,000 offendersabout 160,000 of them
violent offendersback into their communities.
While incarceration rates have soared over the last few decades, the Nation's penal philosophy has shifted dramatically. Instead of flexible sentencing, today's judges and other correctional authorities often have limited discretion. The emphasis on rehabilitation that dominated corrections in the past is now giving way to a desire to crack down on criminals. The parole system has undergone similar changes, with caseloads growing and parole officers increasingly viewing surveillance as a higher priority than rehabilitation. As a result of these trends, prisoners now spend more time behind bars but receive less help in preparing for life on the outside.
Prisoners who have substance abuse or mental health disorders have an even harder time once they're released. According to the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, 83 percent of inmates in state prisons report a history of drug use and 57 percent used drugs in the month before their current offense. But while the percentage of state inmates enrolled in self-help groups, peer groups, or drug education classes has increased, the percentage who reported receiving formal substance abuse treatment from trained professionals dropped from 25 percent in 1991 to just 10 percent in 1997.
Even when prisoners do receive treatment behind bars, individuals typically don't continue treatment once they're outside. "In many cases," said Kenneth W. Robertson, a public health advisor in the Systems Improvement Branch at SAMHSA's Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, "the treatment received in prison is the first such treatment offenders have ever received, so they know very little about how to access resources in the community even if such resources exist."
Prisoners with mental health disorders face similar problems. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 16 percent of inmates in state prisons may be mentally ill. Mental health treatment in prisons is limited, however, and few offenders make the transition to community-based mental health services once they're released.
Untreated mental health disorders can also make post-release life difficult, said David Morrissette, D.S.W., a social science analyst in the Division of Service and Systems Improvement at SAMHSA's Center for Mental Health Services. Such offenders may lack coping skills. They may be unable to navigate the complicated process of obtaining medication, psychotherapy, and other crucial support services. And they face a double stigma when they start looking for legal ways of supporting themselves.
"It's one thing to say you have a mental illness when you're looking for a job," said Dr. Morrissette. "It's another to say that you have a criminal history. Imagine what it must be like to say you have both." Inmates who have substance abuse disorders on top of mental health problems face a "triple whammy," Dr. Morrissette added.
These and other factorsthe dearth of affordable housing and offenders' lack of workplace habits, skills, and experience, for instancecontribute to an astonishingly high rate of recidivism. Within 3 years of release, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports, 67 percent of former inmates of state prisons are arrested again. Most of these rearrests occur within 1 year of a former convict's release from prison.
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A New Approach
(Photo courtesy of the Federal Bureau
The Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative seeks to close
that revolving door. "Until this government-wide initiative, there
never was a concerted effort to deal with the issues surrounding
the reentry of offenders back into the population," said Ms. Nolan.
She noted that a handful of innovative models ranging from a reentry
court in Indiana to a Christian mentoring program in Texas are already
having a dramatic impact on recidivism rates. The goal of this initiative
is to build on such scattered successes to create a variety of prototypes
that can help adult and juvenile offenders who pose the greatest
risk to public safety make a successful transition to life in their
communities. An evaluation of the project as a whole and 10 of the
sites will determine how effective such efforts really are.
The initiative represents a different way of doing business, said Ms. Nolan and other Federal partners. The initiative doesn't seek to create brand-new reentry programs. Instead, grantees are taking existing programs and making them more comprehensive by filling in gaps. The primary task of the initiative's Federal partners is to identify resources that are already available, and help states and communities make better use of them as they enhance and expand their reentry programs. That way, the partners say, the program will be sustainable even after the 3-year grants end.
Most prisoners are eligible for a wide array of services once they're released, such as Medicaid, food stamps, Social Security Disability Insurance, educational and job training programs, Temporary Aid for Needy Families, and housing. For a variety of reasons, few former inmates actually take advantage of these resources. In some cases, offenders may not be aware of the programs or their eligibility for them. In other cases, programs simply aren't interested in serving former prisoners.
That's just not right, said Terrence S. Donahue, M.P.A., senior adviser to the Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Justice Programs at the Department of Justice. "The bottom line is that these individuals have every right to receive
these services," he said. "They desperately need them if they're ever going to turn their lives around."
Building on existing models, each grantee will develop a comprehensive program that ensures that offenders going back to their communities have a seamless continuum of services to ease that transition. That means close collaboration among correctional facilities, law enforcement agencies, education and job training institutions, housing agencies, mental health and substance abuse treatment services, faith-based organizations, and other groups.
Grantees may tailor their programs for youth offenders age 14 to 17, young adult offenders age 18 to 24, adult offenders age 25 to 35, or some combination of these groups. No matter which age group is targeted, however, each program must address the three phases of reentry.
In the "Protect and Prepare" stage, programs based in correctional facilities will begin preparing offenders to reenter society. Correctional institutions will begin by assessing inmates' risk of recidivism, evaluating their needs, and coming up with holistic reentry plans that address those needs. The institutions will then provide such services as mental health and substance abuse treatment, education, vocational training, and parenting and life skills training.
The "Control and Restore" stage balances supervision and services as offenders make the transition back into the community. Working with offenders before and immediately after their release, community-based programs will continue to provide whatever services individuals need.
The initiative doesn't stop there, however. In the "Sustain and Support" phase, individuals and agencies will come together
to support offenders who are no longer being supervised by the criminal justice system. The goal is to hook them up with whatever support groups, social service agencies, or community-based organizations they need.
To help grantees develop such programs, the initiative offers ongoing technical assistance and training through a technical assistance coordinating center. "We're certainly not trying to say that the Feds have all the answers," said the initiative's technical assistance coordinator, Allen L. Ault. Ed.D., chief of special projects at the National Institute of Corrections. "It's really a working partnership among the counties, states, and Federal agencies."
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A Closer Look
Although grantees are still fine-tuning their final program plans, they're already convinced that the initiative will have a big impact on crime.
For example, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice plans to use money from the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative to offer services to prisoners who currently receive none. The Huntsville-based department is planning to target prisoners in administrative segregation (ad-seg)an area of a prison where inmates deemed dangerous to other inmates or staff or in danger themselves are kept in nonpunitive isolation. Confined to their cells except for showers and up to an hour of recreational activity each day, these prisoners are currently ineligible for any of the programs the prison offers to other inmates.
Once the project is up and running, about 100 ad-seg prisoners a year will start receiving services at two yet-to-be-determined sitesone a unit for female offenders and the other a unit for males. Under the proposed plan, prisoners will spend 6 months in a program designed to teach them anger management, literacy, and the other skills they'll need in the world outside. Upon their release, they will transition to resource centers run by the parole board. During this year-long phase, the parole board will assess their needs and capabilities and connect them with whatever they need to ensure success once they're on their own.
"Some of our ad-seg prisoners have been in prison for a number of years and go directly from ad-seg into the community," said Linda Patteson, assistant director of the department's Programs and Services Division. "We want to help them coexist with people, make better decisions, and behave more responsibly once they're back in their communities."
For more information about the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative, visit the "Reentry" Web site at www.ojp.usdoj.gov/reentry.
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