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Recidivism Dispatch from America Works

I saw Peter Cove and Lee Bowes of America Works yesterday at the Manhattan Institute's luncheon on reducing recidivism, who offer the following report from the trenches—

With over 650,000 prisoners returning home each year, and the number returning to prison at an all-time high, recidivism has become the most hotly discussed and debated urban social policy issue since welfare reform. Thus far, though, the key lesson of welfare reform—that work, not social services, is the key to reintegrating people into society—has eluded most criminal justice policy makers.

In September 2006 The Urban Institute published Cleveland Prisoner Experiences Returning Home, by Christy Visher and Shannon Courtney. The paper offers self-reported information on the first three months of experiences from prisoners returning to the Cleveland area taken from an ongoing multi-year study being conducted in Ohio, Maryland, Illinois and Texas.

The returning prisoners report that they are concerned about their inability to get a job because of background checks; about their health and mental health; about substance abuse; about the dangerous neighborhoods they are returning to; and the lack of housing. The surprise in this preliminary report was that eighty percent of respondents reported living with family members. This is not America Works' experience in Detroit, New York, Oakland and Baltimore.  While many stay with family members for the first few days, most quickly move out. Also unusual, the returning prisoners report a positive relationship with their parole officers.

The problem though, is that like too many studies on welfare, this one focuses on the many barriers returning prisoners face. It appears that they receive little or no assistance in finding work. Again, we are reminded of welfare reform, where for too often the focus was on the difficulties recipients faced and how to alleviate those. Once employment was made a policy priority, those barriers became far less salient.

As Congress considers the Second Chance bill, The Manhattan Institute, MRDC and the Urban Institute are all preparing studies on the issue; The Joyce, Clark and Smith Richardson foundations are making major investments, and the efforts of America Works, CEO, Safer Foundation and other groups working with released prisoners are being studied and compared. Major policy players in welfare reform, including NYU Professor Lawrence Mead, Columbia Professor William Eimicke and former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith are examining the issue. There's still time for prisoner re-entry to be a success on the scale of welfare reform, but first we need to make work a priority.