Prisoner ReentryStat: Creating a System That Works
More than 700,000 prisoners will be released in the United States this year. Tragically, some two-thirds will wind up
back behind bars. Improving on that record is of crucial importance, especially to cities and the mayors who lead them. The numbers
are telling. Nearly 40,000 people are released to Philadelphia annually from federal and state prisons or local jails. At
any given time, approximately 12,500 parolees are under mandatory supervision in Baltimore. Dallas handles the release of 400-600
newly-released prisoners every month.
This wave of returning ex-offenders is a long-brewing side effect of the stepped-up law enforcement and tougher drug
laws of the 1980simaginative reforms which helped bring down crime rates and contributed to the rebirth of cities such as New York.
Today, the challenge has changed: returning ex-offenders need the right assistanceand incentivesto avoid returning to lives of crime.
Cities are often expected to take on that job. In Newark, NJ, for instance, it is not unusual for ex-offenders to walk
right in to city hall looking for help. Finding a job is almost always at the top of the list.
But cities typically have neither an independent agency with a mandate to handle prisoner reentry nor a budget to support
such efforts. That's a symptom of a larger problem. In contrast with most government functionsfrom public health to
public assistancethere is no one agency charged with, and accountable for, the job of helping ex-offenders become
successful, law-abiding citizens. State corrections departments' authority and interest extends only as far as the prison gate.
Parole and probation systems devote many of their resources to identifying new offenses (or technical violations) and
returning those in their charge to jail. Police departments understandably focus on arresting law-breakers, not working
with other agencies to share information about parolees. Social service providers operating under state or county contracts
are frequently evaluated by the quantity of services they provide, rather than whether the cases they manage result
in positive outcomes. No one part of government ever seems to be in charge.
Increasingly, in cities like Newark, Jacksonville, and Chicago,
mayors and municipal leaders, knowing that their cities are
at risk if the reentry problem is not addressed, are taking
steps to organize this disjointed non-system and to hold accountable
those who are supposed to be steering former prisoners toward
constructive lives. At the heart of this effort is the same
strategy that made welfare reform effective in the 1990s:
a focus on employment.
The Employment Strategy
For every three ex-offenders released from jail or prison,
two are rearrested, reconvicted, or reincarcerated within
three years; many for violating technicalities of their parole
or for past warrants for other crimes. A recent Manpower
Demonstration Research Corporation study indicates that
when people are working, or are engaged in reentry programs
immediately upon return from prison, they are less likely
to recidivate than those without support. It may seem logical
to help ex-offenders first with an array of personal problems,
whether substance abuse or mental health, but there's good
reason to believe that getting a joband getting one
quicklyis the key to a better life for ex-offenders.
Many newly-released prisoners want to work and are willing
to work, but need to earn income quickly in order to make
child support payments or satisfy other debts. Yearsand,
in some cases, decadesof disconnection from the labor
market can demoralize ex-offenders, who often assume that
they are unskilled, unemployable, or unlikely even to survive.
Most do not qualify for public assistance. For some ex-offenders,
the temptation of a quick buck is ever-present, making it
all-the-more important that reentry programs provide a legal
avenue for generating income.
How can citieswithout authority and often without fundstake
the lead in making that happen?
Mayors may not run their own prisons or parole departments,
but they can use the power of their offices to bring together
and hold accountable those whose job it is to help ex-offenders.
And they can use their bully pulpits to help bring down inappropriate
legal barriers which keep ex-offenders who may want to start
new lives out of the workforce.
The Newark Model
Some 1,700 formerly incarcerated individuals return to the
City of Newark from New Jersey state prison each year; 1,400
inmates return home to Newark from Essex County Jail each
month. Some 4,500 more are under probation supervision. Even
more return from federal prisons. By some estimates, a quarter
of the city's 280,000 residents have, at one time or another,
been "involved" with the criminal justice system.
Prior to the 2006 election of Mayor Cory A. Booker, there
was no shortage of county, state, and federal agencies charged
with helping Newark's ex-offenders. Drug treatment programs
operated under contract to the local county government. The
state Parole Board operated three secure "halfway house"
facilities from which parolees were supposed to look for work;
the New Jersey Department of Corrections operated more than
eight. Yet, no one could say for sure how many ex-offenders
actually got jobs, or even tried to find work. In part, this
failure resulted from the absence of benchmarks to measure
success (but was also related to the policy priorities of
the mayor's office at the time). Though it may seem an obvious
question in hindsight, no one at city hall ever thought to
ask, "Are these programs working?"
Crime in the city stayed stubbornly high in 2006: 105 murders,
1,359 aggravated assaults, and 5,097 stolen cars.
Despite the presence of so many newly-released ex-offenders,
Newark's city government played no direct role in assisting
them. A federally funded "one-stop" workforce development
center was notorious for its long waiting times, limited job
leads, and unknown number of placements. And while it served
ex-offenders, it did not offer any services specifically tailored
to their needs.
Three years later, and despite the fact that the city has
no budget of its own to do the job, dozens of ex-offenders
are being seen each day by a network of agencies coordinated
by the Mayor's Office of Reentry and its Newark Prisoner Reentry
Initiative (NPRI). Since its inception, the program has served
300 people. The goal is to serve 1,340 by the end of December
In effect, the City of Newark has created a system which
forces the numerous agencies playing a role in the lives of
ex-offenders to work together. At its heart is a new philosophy
for ex-offenders. Instead of job training or other forms of
social service, the emphasis is on creating a "rapid
attachment to work." Unless a newly-released ex-offender
gets on the right path within days after leaving prison, there's
a strong likelihood he'll soon be back behind bars. In New
Jersey, 62 percent of ex-offenders are rearrested within three
The Newark model has relied in part on Opportunity Reconnect,
a first stop for those on probation or newly-released from
jail or prison. This one-stop service "portal" is
supported by private philanthropic funding from New Jersey's
Nicholson Foundation. It is run in collaboration with the
city; the state Parole Board and Department of Corrections;
and the Essex County Probation Division, Division of Welfare,
and Community College. Opportunity Reconnect maintains a data
base with information about those asking for help and directs
jobs-seekers to one of five inter-connected nonprofit organizations
which provide hands-on assistance and case management. These
agencies do not operate in a vacuum, however. They are monitored
by the Mayor's Office of Reentry, which itself has become
a defacto portal for ex-offenders.
Newarkers, ex-offenders, and the general public alike have
traditionally relied on city hallthe mayor, council
members and agenciesto help them find jobs.
Whether through Opportunity Reconnect or the Office of Reentry,
ex-offenders are referred to faith-based and community organizations
(some of which are located at Opportunity Reconnect, some
of which are not) that are funded by the City of Newark under
NPRI to assist ex-offenders in finding and maintaining jobs.
These FCBOs, as they are called, have performance-based contracts
with the city that require them to meet specific targets for
placing ex-offenders in jobs. Over a two year period, three
agenciesLa Casa de Don Pedro, Renaissance Community
Development Corporation, and Offender Aid and Restorationhave
been given responsibility for a portfolio of 138 ex-offenders
and are required to meet the following benchmarks: (1) an
overall "portfolio" employment rate of 60 percent;
(2) a 70 percent, six month job retention rate for new hires
at an average wage of $9 per hour; and (3) a recidivism rate
of less than 22 percent after one year. One agency, the New
Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ), is required to
meet these same benchmarks for 256 individuals. Additionally,
NJISJ has been contracted to provide all of its clients with
eight-week long transitional jobs to increase work-skills
NPRI employs a specific, tested approach to finding meaningful
employment for ex-offenders based on the successful "Ready4Work"
model which provides rapid placement combined with mentoring
and referrals to other services (such as substance abuse treatment)
that continue even after someone is placed in a job. This
model has been tested in seventeen other cities.
This focus on "work first" is not the only thing
which distinguishes Newark's approach from other prisoner
reentry models. A data-driven performance management system
is currently in development. Modeled on the famous CompStat
arrest tracking system used by police to reduce crime, the
program will be called "ReentryStat." The Mayor's
Office of Reentry will work with its NPRI partners to track,
evaluate, and make management decisions based on data. ReentryStat
will make Newark a pioneer in the compilation and use of reentry
data. By contract, participating non-profits will be asked
to meet specific employment and wage goals or risk losing
their funding. Plans call for a fully integrated, cross-agency
system which will facilitate regular meetings of parole and
probation officials, the Newark Police Department, and participating
social service agencies to track and improve performance.
Robert Behn of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government has
referred to this approach as "collaborating for performance."
Newark was able to obtain a $2 million grant from the U.S.
Department of Labor (USDOL) to support services for ex-offenders
and secured another $2 million in private match dollars. Other
USDOL investments in this project included approximately $1
million dollars split between a "Fishbowl" lessons-learned
initiative and the New Jersey Department of Labor, which provides
technical support. The effort has also benefited from private
philanthropy. Because the federal grant could not be used
to help violent ex-offenders, a local foundation came forward
to provide such support. And the Manhattan Institute also
provides support for a "loaned executive" to head
the Mayor's Reentry Council, the entity which will operate
The Newark model offers guidance to any jurisdiction looking
to improve its reentry services. Mayor Booker's office does
not provide social services itself. It acts, instead, to convene
agencies and departments with a shared interest in ensuring
that services are measured and effective. Further, the mayor's
team has structured contracts in ways that provide agencies
with an incentive to perform.
Newark's success in obtaining private, philanthropic assistance
for its prisoner reentry initiatives is atypical. But resourceful
city, state, or county officials looking to replicate the
"cross-agency" approach to reentry may find it possible
to follow Newark's example. Many cities have local community
foundations willing to assess which local, state, and federal
funds can be leveraged for use in reentry programs. Some states
have funded reentry programming with unspent welfare (Temporary
Assistance to Needy Families), Workforce Investment Act monies,
and food stamp funds. TANF funds are controlled at the state
level and, depending on the state, decisions about how they
are used are also made at that level. Local leaders must request
that the state agency controlling TANF funds (typically either
a welfare or labor agency) allow city agencies to access them.
It behooves mayors and other local leaders to make requests
in accordance with state priorities for TANF and other funding
streams. Similarly, Workforce Investment Boards set policy
at the state level for workforce funding and goals. These
WIBs draw up plans, which local governments can influence,
defining how funds may be spent. Working with ex-offenders
is allowable in most cases, but most WIBs don't see it as
a priority. Mayors who do can advocate for workforce development
funds to be spent on reintegrating ex-offenders.
In the last year, New Jersey spent approximately $16.5 million
in Newark on state corrections programs, probation work, halfway
houses, day reporting centers, community release programs,
facility education programs, parenting programs, drug courts,
probation costs, and workforce development. Mayors looking
to calculate the amount of state-level funds already at work
in their communities should begin by assessing spending among
different agencies and building a comprehensive reentry budget.
Those agencies can include corrections, parole, the courts,
labor, and welfare, in addition to any private monies being
spent. A mayor must then petition his or her governor for
data about returning prisoners and state-level efforts to
reintegrate ex-offenders into their community. This can help
a mayor understand the range of services already available
for municipal prisoner reentry programs and get a better sense
of what can be done to leverage or add resources. Perhaps
most important, data produced by an inventory of state funded
services can be used by a mayor to pressure state authorities
to demonstrate positive outcomes.
Next Frontiers: Families and Barriers
Getting a job is a new start for someone who's been behind
barsbut it's just a start. What will give him the incentive
to keep the job, improve his job skills, and move up the wage
One key answer: a tighter bond with family. Having a job
is one thing. But having someone to work for can be
a strong incentive to stay on the straight-and-narrow path.
That's why Philadelphia and Newark have begun fatherhood
programs which provide mentoring and parenting skills along
with help getting ready for work. Counseling is usually available
to participants and there is an emphasis on group support.
Child and parent activities are also part of the structure.
The men in these programs are either returning from incarceration
or getting their lives back together after losing a job and
a home. These programs get their funding from private foundations.
Philadelphia's also gets some funding from the Workforce Development
Intermediary using TANF dollars.
But those who hope to reunite ex-offenders and their families
face significant legal obstacles. Of these, child support
arrearages are often the most difficult to overcome.
Ex-prisoners are often saddled with court-ordered obligations
to pay child support. While they are incarcerated, these debts
only grow in size. As the Center for Law and Social Policy
reported in 2007, 55 percent of state prison inmates are parents.
"Typically, parents owe $10,000 [upon] entering prison
and $20,000+ upon release," the report noted. The size
of these obligations, compared to the likely income of an
ex-offender, only fuels the ever-present temptation to earn
fast money in the informal/illegal economy.
An increasing number of states, led by North Carolina, are
moving to cap or forgive such arrearages upon release. (In
many cases, much of the money is actually owed to the state
as compensation for public assistance provided to children.)
Other jurisdictions are reviewing whether some jobs or legal
privileges should no longer be held off-limits to ex-offenders.
As with burdensome child support payments, laws making a driver's
license difficult to obtain, perhaps due to unpaid traffic
or parking tickets predating a prison term, may force ex-offenders
But central to the goal of identifying and ameliorating these
related problems is the creation of reentry systems which
help ex-offenders get jobs, keep jobs, and avoid going back
to prison, while integrating the many moving parts of government,
including corrections, parole, police, and social service
agencies. Mayor Booker's Office of Reentry and the Newark
Prisoner Reentry Initiative are promising steps in that direction.
1. Federal Bureau of Investigations, Criminal Justice Information
2. This initiative is in collaboration with the United States
Department of Labor. The City subcontracts with Public/Private
Ventures to help manage the effort and provide technical support.
3. Public/Private Ventures created Ready4Work: An Ex-Prisoner,
Community and Faith Initiative in 2003. It was Funded by U.S.
Departments of Labor and Justice, the Annie E. Casey Foundation,
and the Ford Foundation. What makes Newark unique is the scale
of the program and the fact that it is being implemented by
a city and not piloted by a federal agency.
4. See Financing Transitional Jobs Programs: CLASP
Winter 2003 for a list of program dollars that can used tapped
for re-entry programs:
Serious and Violent Reentry Initiative
Workforce Investment Act (WIA)
Community Development Block Grant (CDBG)
Food Stamp Education and Training (FSET)
Funds for Basic Vocational Rehabilitation
Social Service Block Grants
Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act
Workplace and Community Transition
Life Skills for State and Local Prisoners Program
Literacy Program for Prisoners
Resident Opportunities and Self-Sufficiency
Program (ROSS) Hope VI
Empowerment Zones (EXs), Enterprise
Communities (ECs) Renewal Communities (RCs)
Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF)
Job Opportunities for Low-Income Individuals (JOLI)
Operation Weed and Seed