On an average day in 2000, more than 10 percent of all black American men in their 20s were either in prison or in jail. Most of them had very little schooling. About one in three black male high-school dropouts were behind bars. A black man reaching his early 30s was nearly twice as likely to have a prison record than to hold a bachelor's degree. And young black men with no college education were more than twice as likely to have been to prison than to have served in the military.
The ubiquity of incarceration among young black men, which I studied with sociologist Becky Pettit, is striking. Today, incredibly, around 60 percent of black male high-school dropouts now in their mid-30s have prison records. Prison time averages 28 months, so for black men with low levels of education, imprisonment for two years or more has indeed become commonplace. One longtime advocate of prisoners' rights, Angela Davis, observed at a forum in New Orleans earlier this year, "In the black community, almost everybody has a connection with prisoners in one way or another. It's been a theme of our lives."
Few other events separate the lives of blacks and whites like incarceration. Black men are seven to eight times more likely to go to prison or jail than white men. (Because 93 percent of all prison and jail inmates are men, the penal system has a more direct effect on their life chances than women's.) This large racial disparity far exceeds modest black-white differences in marriage rates, schooling and employment. Given these facts, the prison boom is perhaps the most important development in American race relations in the last three decades.
The penal system casts a long shadow over poor and minority communities, in part because incarceration affects ex-inmates well after they are released. Research shows that spending time in prison reduces the wages of ex-inmates by 10 percent to 15 percent. The reasons are myriad. Men coming out of prison typically find only temporary or casual jobs that offer few opportunities for promotion or building skills. They may be lured away from honest jobs by the promise of easy cash from selling drugs or committing other crimes. Ex-inmates also talk about the difficulties of adjusting to life on the outside, particularly in the first days and weeks after release; the self-reliance needed for the daily demands of getting to work and following the directions of supervisors can be difficult for those used to the rigid rules of prison. Finally, ex-inmates contend with employers who show little interest in hiring them. A survey conducted by Harry Holzer at Georgetown University shows that 82 percent of employers say they would hire a welfare recipient, but only 33 percent would hire an ex-convict.
Poor employment options reverberate throughout family life. Men without steady jobs are unappealing marriage partners -- they can't contribute economically and criminal conviction carries a stigma that can repel potential wives and girlfriends. For those who were married before prison, the long periods of separation during incarceration take a heavy toll. A survey of poor parents from the Fragile Families Study showed that going to prison or jail reduced the likelihood of cohabitation or marriage by about one-quarter -- even after factoring out the effects of drug use and violence, education and the level of conflict in the marriage.
The negative effects of incarceration on employment and marriage are important because a steady job and a good marriage are critical steps for rehabilitation. Reliable jobs keep men who are prone to crime under the watchful eyes of employers. A good marriage has a similar effect, keeping a man home at night and invested in his wife and children. Given that marriage and employment are so important for rehabilitation, it is striking that incarceration is now being found to reduce wages and increase the risks of divorce and separation. Not only are ex-inmates re-entering society with the deficits that drew them into crime, the experience of incarceration itself is undermining the supports of job and family that are critical for going straight.
These facts show the importance of offering more and better supports to the immense numbers of inmates re-entering society so that release does not lead immediately back to recidivism and reincarceration. About 650,000 inmates were released from prison in 2002, up from around 150,000 in 1977. In addition to prison releases, millions of people churn through America's jail system each year. But parole, once conceived as the final stage in the rehabilitation process, now functions more like law enforcement than social work. Joan Petersilia, a leading scholar of parole, writes that "parole officers in most large urban areas are now more surveillance-than-services-oriented, and drug testing, electronic monitoring, and verifying curfews are the most common activities of many parole agents."
Nonprofit organizations increasingly serve the needs of ex-prisoners, but these groups are often unprepared to deal with people caught in the web of the criminal-justice system. Unlike poor men without criminal records, parolees can be sent to prison for relapsing into drug use or for missing appointments with parole officers. Ex-offenders often have to report their criminal histories to prospective employers, and they face legal barriers to skilled occupations and welfare benefits. The criminal-justice system can help ex-prisoners return to society by planning for housing and employment before release or by forgiving minor infractions among parolees. But authorities' support for rehabilitation has declined as budgets for drug treatment, employment and training have shrunk and parole supervision has become more punitive.
A small but important exception to this trend is New York's Community and Law Enforcement Resources Together program (ComALERT), which is unusual because it is run by the Brooklyn district attorney. While prosecutors have generally been in the vanguard of the punitive trend in criminal justice, the Brooklyn DA, Charles "Joe" Hynes, has promoted rehabilitation through employment as a way of improving public safety in Brooklyn's poor, high-crime neighborhoods. No stranger to progressive methods, Hynes has used social workers to help process domestic-violence cases since the early 1990s. More recently, his office established a program of treatment and community supervision, as an alternative to incarceration, for nonviolent drug offenders.
In 1999, Hynes directed Patricia Gatling, then the first assistant district attorney, to bring together representatives from law-enforcement and community organizations in the high-crime neighborhoods of Brooklyn. The first meetings were held in the poor, predominantly African American community of Bedford Stuyvesant, an area where there had been a recent spate of shootings. Gatling enlisted the police department to help parole and probation officers locate members of the area's correctional population and notify them of the meetings. These gatherings began to connect parolees and probationers to community groups that provide drug treatment and job placement.
Soon after, the DA hired a full-time social worker to administer ComALERT. As the program developed, it strengthened its ties to community-service organizations. Gatling reports that there are now about 150 community organizations throughout Brooklyn working with ComALERT, providing services to crime-involved youth, drug offenders and ex-offenders leaving prison. ComALERT also provides jobs, in addition to referring parolees to job-placement services; program parolees who enroll with the Doe Fund, a welfare-to-work organization, are employed in street cleaning and other low-skill jobs for $5.50 to $6.50 an hour. These jobs can't provide economic independence, but they do allow ex-inmates to build work histories and experience with continuous employment. The Doe Fund also provides released prisoners with about a year of room, board and drug treatment immediately after release. Doe Fund participants also contribute to a savings program that pays several thousand dollars when the program is completed. These benefits are coupled with a strict curfew and drug-testing regimen.
While most people leaving prison can do little better than a minimum-wage job, ComALERT also offers some access to skilled trades. In an agreement with the painters union, District Council 9 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, the program offers apprenticeships to ex-prisoners with high-school diplomas. The apprenticeships can ultimately lead to steady employment in union jobs that pay well.
Many nonprofit and state agencies offer services to released prisoners, but ComALERT is unusual because of its close ties to criminal-justice authorities. The first contact between ComALERT caseworkers and offenders comes in prison during a prerelease interview. I attended one of these sessions at Queensboro Prison with Kevin Costin, a social worker and the director of ComALERT. Costin had also invited a Doe Fund representative, who explained the services to a classroom of men due for release in the coming months. After the presentation, Costin interviewed about 20 prisoners who had signed up to find out more. Some were enthusiastic about guaranteed jobs and housing outside the city shelter system, but others were wary of leaving prison only to enter a residential facility governed by strict drug and alcohol testing.
Still, contact had been established, and Costin would later meet many of these men again on the outside at his office in Brooklyn. Establishing a relationship with ex-inmates allows Costin to vouch for those he believes are working hard to go straight. In frequent contact with the police and parole officers, Costin often secures second chances for nonviolent offenders who are struggling with addiction, health and behavioral problems.
Because resources are tight, ComALERT has not been systematically evaluated, but its results appear extremely promising. Gatling reports that after one year, about 16 percent of Brooklyn parolees are rearrested, while recidivism among ComALERT parolees is just 6.6 percent. Over three years, 41 percent of parolees in Brooklyn commit new crimes compared with less than 17 percent among ComALERT participants.
ComALERT is also cheap. Right now it costs just the salary of one full-time social worker and a fraction of the time of one prosecutor. The services that are provided come from the city's welfare system. How can the program get by on such little support? To begin with, it is small, enrolling around 200 ex-offenders each year. But the program does appear to be effective for those it does serve. Gatling explains that ComALERT's success is due largely to the links that the program builds between corrections, police and parole on one side and community-service organizations on the other. Through these connections, ComALERT advocates for ex-offenders to criminal-justice authorities and employers, then links them to social services. In the critical period immediately before and after release, ComALERT helps provide people with a job and a place to live, and will vouch for those who are working hard to go straight. Gatling sums up ComALERT's role: "We are [ex-offenders'] social capital. We supply what they never had in the community."
At a time when support for rehabilitative programs is weak and parole supervision has become more punitive, the problems of prisoner re-entry have gained new urgency. New research confronts an orthodoxy of skepticism that doubts whether rehabilitation programs can reduce recidivism. The tone was set in the mid-1970s when Robert Martinson and his research team examined several hundred evaluations of rehabilitation programs. In an article published in The Public Interest in 1974, Martinson concluded that "with few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism." While Martinson's review included some important qualifications, the idea that criminals could not be reformed became conventional wisdom.
Later studies seemed to justify Martinson's pessimism. Between 1975 and 1977, for example, a major federally sponsored employment program, the National Supported Work Demonstration, gave minimum-wage construction and service-industry jobs to men with recent arrest records. The men worked in small teams under the supervision of a trained counselor. At a cost of $100 million, the program appeared disappointing. Early evaluations found that the low-wage jobs neither increased employment nor reduced recidivism.
But recent renewed interest in prisoner re-entry led some researchers back to the old studies of rehabilitation. University of Minnesota criminologist Christopher Uggen re-examined the National Supported Work Demonstration, this time dividing the program participants into two groups: offenders under 27 and offenders 27 and over. Uggen found that supported employment significantly reduced recidivism among older men. He writes, "In contrast to the stylized cultural image of the 'hardened criminal' these results suggest that older offenders are more amenable to employment interventions than younger offenders." Some researchers argue that older men are more motivated to get back on track than young ones, who remain strongly involved with their crime-involved peers. If this is the case, Uggen's findings suggest that re-entry programs that provide jobs can reduce crime, but the results are best for those who are highly motivated to make a change.
Like the older men in Uggen's analysis, many of the ComALERT participants are self-selected and motivated to succeed. In this way, the Brooklyn program offers a valuable glimpse of what effective rehabilitative community supervision might look like in the era of mass incarceration. Resources for such programs are very tight. And while rehabilitation through employment is at the core of the program, reforming offenders is not the main goal in the current and harsh criminal-justice climate; instead, rehabilitation is only important to the extent that it improves public safety. So ComALERT focuses on those who will most likely respond well to treatment and transitional employment.
Even if only the most motivated and able ex-offenders join the program, the reductions in recidivism are substantial. The idea of providing police and parole officers with more information about the population they are supervising cannot hurt, and it may be extremely helpful. Whatever its broader effects on reducing crime, ComALERT does get jobs, housing, education and drug treatment to the poor and mostly minority men who pass through the criminal-justice system.
By cleaving poor black communities off from the main currents of American life, the prison boom has left us more divided as a nation. Incarceration rates are now so high that the stigma of criminality brands not only individuals but a whole generation of black men with little schooling. While our prisons and jails expanded to preserve public safety, they now risk undermining the civic consensus on which public safety is ultimately based.
Today only a small fraction of Brooklyn parolees go through ComALERT, and a $4.5 million grant for the program was cut as New York City slid into financial trouble. Without a significant infusion of funds, it remains unclear if the program can operate effectively on a large scale. This would miss an important opportunity. New research and the experience of re-entry organizations like ComALERT show that disadvantaged communities need social investments, not just intensive policing, to absorb the large numbers of men returning home from penal institutions. Prisoner re-entry programs offer a way not to confine and separate them but to reintegrate them through expanded opportunity -- and to increase public safety in the process. Such programs offer a way to get smart, rather than tough, on crime.
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