Breaking free

June 01, 2005|By Aurie Hall

TRINA SELDON, 35, is raising her three children, holding two jobs and renting an apartment. But from 1996 to 2000, Ms. Seldon spent much of her time in jail. She was arrested 11 times and had five criminal convictions, all related to her drug addiction.

By all expectations, Ms. Seldon should be in prison now, given that more than half of the people released from Maryland's prisons are reincarcerated within three years. Instead, she works as a legal secretary after completing a program at Alternative Directions, a small Baltimore nonprofit that helps women get back on their feet after prison.

Alternative Directions helped Ms. Seldon get into a 28-day detoxification and drug treatment program. Then she went into a residential program, Marian House, that helps women address their addictions. She took classes in parenting, job readiness and computers. She was able to move into Marian House's transitional housing and reunite with her children. From there, she moved into an apartment and found a job.

That was two years ago, and Ms. Seldon is still going strong. Before she received this support, she typically stayed clean only a week or two after she was released from jail. Now, she's been sober for five years and is living the life she once only imagined for herself and her children.

Nearly 15,000 Marylanders leave prison every year, and 9,000 of them return to Baltimore. Only a fraction will receive help getting off drugs, finding housing and landing jobs because there are so few community-based programs dedicated to helping former prisoners start a new life.

Even though re-entry programs are effective and much less expensive than incarceration, these programs don't have access to adequate or stable funding. Very few federal or state dollars are given to support re-entry programs. Private dollars are often scarce and, alone, aren't enough.

Leaders of both political parties are getting the message, and that's encouraging. Concerned about the high societal and economic costs of recidivism, Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been working on legislation with the aim of reducing recidivism, increasing public safety and helping states and communities better address the growing population of returning prisoners.

Ohio Republican Rep. Rob Portman and Illinois Democratic Rep. Danny K. Davis introduced the Second Chance Act, which had 60 original sponsors, including four members of the Maryland delegation. Although it proposes only modest funding, $110 million over two years, the bill would save taxpayer dollars and improve public safety by reducing recidivism.

The legislation reauthorizes re-entry demonstration projects focused on jobs, housing, substance abuse treatment, mental health and children and families. It would improve federal agency coordination, authorize research and establish a resource center to provide information and training for local and state governments and organizations on re-entry programs and opportunities for funding.

To reach the many thousands of prisoners returning to Baltimore, we must acknowledge that current public spending wastes money and lives and puts the public at risk. Instead, we need to take a common-sense approach to lowering recidivism rates by increasing the availability of drug addiction treatment and job training. Government agencies need to make returning prisoners a priority, establish strong working relationships with nonprofit providers and help to fund effective programs.

The Open Society Institute has found that the most successful re-entry programs, some of which it has funded in Baltimore, begin working with people before they are released from prison and support them during the transition to help them achieve economic stability.

Using the period of incarceration to treat addictions, to offer vocational training and to link people with community programs is effective. Federal and state governments and local providers should make these programs a priority. The results are worth the investment: With OSI support, about 60 percent of the women in the Alternative Directions program avoided taking drugs and getting arrested again in the first year after their release. For women who didn't drop out of the program, 92 percent had successful outcomes.

Trina Seldon is one of those success stories. She hopes to get additional training to become an addictions counselor. She says it would make her happy to be able to help others find their way. And that would benefit all of us.

Aurie Hall is director of the Criminal Justice Program of the Open Society Institute - Baltimore.

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