What Happens After Prison: The Big Challenge in Criminal Justice Reform

There’s been a lot of premature celebration about the growing trans-ideological, bipartisan convergence on criminal justice reform as a worthy area of public policy cooperation at a time when such topics are very rare. It is, indeed, a very big deal, given decades of conservative demands for maximum incarceration for all kinds of offenses via mandatory sentencing and liberal silence or complicity.

But not a lot has happened just yet, and there are many bright red devils in the details. Even before you get to those, however, there is a misconception shared by some sentencing reformers that needs to be addressed: the vague idea we can get to the levels of incarceration of most of the rest of the civilized world simply by releasing non-violent drug offenders.

In an important piece at Vox, one of my favorite writers on criminal justice, UCLA’s Mark Kleiman, along with Angela Hawken of Pepperdine and Ross Halperin of BOTEC Analysis, come to grips with the real dilemmas involving de-incarceration, and offer an agenda for reducing prison populations by focusing on an area of the problem that is too often ignored: post-prison reentry and rehabilitation. Thanks to conservative hostility to “parole” and early release policies, and liberal distaste for close supervision of ex-cons, we have throughout the period of maximum incarceration acted as though we expect people with criminal records, limited education, and in many cases a history of substance abuse, to somehow figure out how to support themselves and their families with legitimate work. It hasn’t happened.

While it lasts, prison is horrible for the prisoner and expensive for the state. And things often don’t get better when it ends: of the people released from prison today, about 60 percent will be back inside within three years.

The transition from prison to the “free world” can be very tough, both for the offender and for the neighborhood he returns to. In the month after getting out, a person released from prison has about a dozen times the mortality rate of people of the same age, race, and sex in the same neighborhood, with the leading causes of death among former inmates being drug overdose, cardiovascular disease, homicide, and suicide.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Consider someone whose conduct earned him (much more rarely “her”) a prison cell. Typically, that person went into prison with poor impulse control, weak if any attachment to the legal labor market, few marketable skills, and subpar work habits. More often than not, he’s returning to a high-crime neighborhood. Many of his friends on the outside are also criminally active. Maybe, if he’s lucky and has been diligent, he’s learned something useful in prison. Perhaps he’s even picked up a GED. But he hasn’t learned much about how to manage himself in freedom because he hasn’t had any freedom in the recent past. And he hasn’t learned to provide for himself because he’s been fed, clothed, and housed at public expense.

Now let him out with $40 in his pocket, sketchy if any identification documents, and no enrollment for basic income support, housing, or health insurance. Even if he has family or friends who can tide him over during the immediate transition, his chances of finding legitimate work in a hurry aren’t very good. If he’s not working, he has lots of free time to get into trouble and no legal way of supporting himself.

Altogether, it’s a formula for failure — and failure is, too often, what it produces.

For the transition from prison to life outside to be successful, it needs to be gradual. If someone needed to be locked up yesterday, he shouldn’t be completely at liberty today. And he shouldn’t be asked to go from utter dependency to total self-sufficiency in one flying leap. He needs both more control and more support. Neither alone is likely to do the job.

Of course, both control and support cost money. But so does prison. The trick is to start the re-entry process before what would otherwise have been the release date, so the money you spend in the community is balanced by the money you’re not spending on a cell. The average cost of holding a prisoner comes to about $2,600 per month. At the same time, even very intrusive supervision leaves a released offender freer than he would have been on the inside. So even a program that looks expensive and intrusive compared with ordinary re-entry or parole is cheap and liberating compared with a cellblock.

The authors proceed to lay out a “gradual re-entry” strategy that includes closely supervised (but still publicly facilitated) housing, and an initial job that can build employment skills and slowly begin to replace public income support. The basic idea is to get the ex-con to the point where he or she has an apartment and a job and is free of addictions. Once that point is reached, the odds of recidivism goes down significantly, and there is a realistic opportunity for self-rehabilitation.

Will it work? Well, it cannot be much worse than the current system.

There’s no way to guess in advance how many prisoners would succeed in making the transition: for all the statistical work on risk assessment, looking into the soul remains hard, and looking into the future impossible. It’s not even obvious whether the success rate would be higher with men or with women, with younger or older offenders, with those convicted of nonviolent crimes or of violent ones. But there’s good reason to think the success rate would be higher for graduated release than for the current approach, and that the costs of the program could be more than recouped from the savings in reduced incarceration, now and in the future. But budget savings aren’t the main goal: the greatest benefits would flow to the offenders, to their families, to their neighborhoods, and to those who otherwise would have been the victims of their future crimes.

It’s worth a try.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.