Returning Home: Scholars Say More Research Is Needed on the Societal Re-Entry of the Formerly Incarcerated

By Roach, Ronald | Black Issues in Higher Education, February 24, 2005 | Go to article overview

Returning Home: Scholars Say More Research Is Needed on the Societal Re-Entry of the Formerly Incarcerated


Roach, Ronald, Black Issues in Higher Education


Since the late 1960s, politicians and policymakers have talked tough on crime and have passed tough laws to build prisons and to prescribe lengthy sentences for the criminally convicted. In the past five years, however, public attention has focused on a criminal justice issue to which politicians and other public officials previously paid little heed. That issue is the societal re-entry of the formerly incarcerated, which is documented at an unprecedented scale now as more people are leaving prisons than at any time in American history.

Since 2000, more than 600,000 people a year have been leaving prisons and jails in the United States, which is a fourfold increase over the past two decades. In comparison, the American prison and jail population rose to 2.085 million in 2003 from 503,586 in 1980, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

"The Justice Department has predicted that 630,000 individuals are going to be released from prison this year. Unfortunately, as a nation, we have not prepared for these individuals as they come back to neighborhoods and communities. We must take a serious look at our correctional system and a serious look at what it takes to reform, to rehabilitate and to prepare people for re-entry into normal society once they are released from correctional facilities and institutions," says U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill.

Davis, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, has been the author of the Public Safety Ex-Offender Self Sufficiency Act and a chief cosponsor of the Second Chance Act of 2004: Community SafEty through Recidivism Prevention. The bills, which will be reintroduced this year, are legislative measures to provide supportive services and opportunities for the formerly incarcerated. Though officials such as Davis have been pushing the federal government to address the re-entry issue, the burden has fallen squarely on localities and states to provide the necessary social services and training for ex-offenders.

Officials know that people leaving prison present a challenging profile for states and localities because such individuals have a legion of complex needs. Three-quarters of those released from prison and jail have a history of substance abuse, two-thirds have no high school diploma, and 55 percent of reentering adults have children under 18, according to the Re-Entry Policy Council, a policy advisory group established to advise state governments. Nearly half of those leaving jail earned less than $600 per month immediately prior to their incarceration, and their opportunities for employment are significantly diminished once they have a criminal record, the policy council reports. In addition, more than a third of jail inmates report having some physical or mental disability.

Criminal justice reform advocates and some scholars say that in addition to their personal disadvantages and problems, such as low education and high rates of a history of substance abuse, the formerly incarcerated are unjustly saddled with a depth of social stigma, discrimination and political disenfranchisement that manifests as "social death." There's also concern over what many perceive as the loss of rehabilitation as a goal in the U.S. criminal justice system.

"Unless prisons and corrections systems truly adopt the rehabilitative model while prisoners are incarcerated, unless our society is willing to have faith in the fact that these men and women have been rehabilitated, unless there's a demonstration on the part of a society to have a willingness to use those coming out of the jails in a productive way, we're going to continue to see higher recidivism," says Dr. Ramona Brockett, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore.

"The time has been served for some of these drug offenses and other offenses, and these people are coming out," explains Dr. Everette B. Penn, a criminology professor at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. …

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