Leaving prison should mean having a fresh start, but for many returning citizens it presents a host of new challenges. Re-entering society can be overwhelming for many reasons, and unfortunately many people end up back in prison. Despite various prison reform initiatives, the rate of recidivism in the United States is still an astonishing 70% within 5 years of release.
Studies have shown that more than half of prisoners have been incarcerated more than once. For many people, breaking the cycle of incarceration is extremely difficult. Prison conditions and limited re-entry support, both during and after incarceration, make it very challenging to adjust to normal life. With over 2 million people in the criminal justice system at any given time, the U.S. has the largest prison population in the world and prisons tend to be overcrowded. Further exacerbating this issue, there are few resources available to help formerly incarcerated people find housing, employment and other social services, and many return to criminal activity to get by financially.
Unfortunately, there is no “quick-fix” solution. Each justice-involved individual experiences a unique set of social and cultural circumstances that will affect the way he or she adjusts to their new situation. However, we can do much better as a society to help this community more holistically, and reduce a person’s chances of relapsing into criminal behavior.
Education is one of the best ways to help formerly incarcerated people find employment and plan for the future. Completing high school, and possibly pursuing a college degree or technical skills program while incarcerated, opens up a wide range of career possibilities. Based on research performed by the Rand Corporation, the Vera Institute of Justice recently determined that “inmates who participated in correctional education programs were
43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years of release than those who did not participate. This translates into a 13–percentage-point reduction in the risk of recidivating.” Vera also concluded from the statistics that, “not only are such released inmates less likely to return to prison, they are also more likely to find employment after release. Additional funding for educational programs offered at correctional facilities is therefore critical.
Financial education is also critically important to help people achieve long-term financial independence. Formerly incarcerated individuals need improved access to resources that can help them manage their money more effectively. Understanding how to budget, improve credit and save for retirement, often leads to financial stability. First Step Alliance is a non-profit organization that provides access to free financial education and credit counseling services for formerly incarcerated people by working with re-entry groups.
Eliminating User Fees For Criminal Behavior
People who have been incarcerated frequently encounter financial challenges that are very difficult to overcome, which makes it hard for them to build a stable financial future. User fees are a great example of this. These vary by state, but justice-involved individuals are often charged fees for public defense, and incredibly, fees for the time they spend in jail. This debt can be very difficult to eliminate, and places a heavy financial burden on those who are already struggling to re-adjust. Eliminating these fees can go a long way in helping people get back on their feet.
Increased Support for Social Services
A significant portion of current or formerly incarcerated people have struggled with substance abuse or mental health issues. Without appropriate treatment, these problems can affect someone's ability to live a normal life, making them more likely to fall back into the prison system.
Increased funding for social services can help address these pervasive problems. In particular, we need to expand treatment facilities for people who are struggling with these issues. Mental health and rehab facilities are expensive and overcrowded, making it difficult for people to get proper treatment. The cost of health insurance can also be prohibitive. As a result, many people end up in prison rather than in a treatment facility, where they can receive the help they need.
The ability to obtain social support services varies widely by location. A national standard for these services can increase access for everyone, particularly those in underserved communities.
Access to Financial Products
For many people re-entering society, access to financial products is also very limited. The process of opening a traditional bank account can be very daunting. Many banks require proof of address, identification, and other documents that a recently incarcerated person may not have. It can be even more difficult to open a credit card or take out a loan, as many people in this situation do not have established credit.
Many returning citizens are unable to access the financial services they need, and instead are relegated to using check cashing services and payday lenders. These non-bank alternatives expose people to unnecessary risks, are extremely costly, and should not be the only available solution.
To help address the issue of fair treatment in banking, First Step Alliance, through its membership relationship with Element Federal Credit Union, launched a Fresh Start Banking Program for formerly incarcerated individuals. Unlike most big banks, credit unions are designed to support their members and often have very low fees. They are also democratically run, which means that members have more control than they would in traditional banks. First Step’s vision is to start a new credit union dedicated to this community, and is in the process of doing so.
There is no simple approach to reducing recidivism, but as a society we need to be much more engaged in addressing the collateral consequences of mass incarceration. Through the combined efforts of government, non-profit organizations, socially-conscious companies and grassroots initiatives, we can work together to change the narrative and help formerly incarcerated people create a positive path forward.