Wanted: action, not more reports

May 22, 2008|By DAN RODRICKS

I have been presented with a 55-page report entitled "From Options to Action: A Roadmap for City Leaders to Connect Formerly Incarcerated Individuals to Work." It's the result of a "groundbreaking" mayoral summit on prisoner re-entry and employment in New York. I started to read it, and then reading turned into skimming, then the skimming turned into a glaze over my eyes, and soon blessed sleep came upon me.

Apologies to the people who worked on this report and who wrote it, designed its attractive pages and printed it. But I cannot bring myself to face another 55 pages on what to do about ex-offenders who can't find jobs and who revert to committing crimes.

We already know what to do.

We don't need another report, another task force, another "convening of the stakeholders."

We need to blow up the culture of corrections as we presently know it, identify prisoners with the most potential and offer them intense intake-to-release preparation for re-entry. This will be the best use of federal funds that should be coming to the states through the Second Chance Act, passed by Congress and signed by the president last month.

Start with the nonviolent offenders, those men and women who have been on long losing streaks in life because of drug addiction or a fool's stubbornness. They write bad checks, steal items from stores, break into houses, sell heroin and cocaine, buy heroin and cocaine. They frequently violate probationary conditions set by judges.

If we focused just on this population, which accounts for a large segment of America's 52nd state - the state of Incarceration, due north of the state of Denial - then we might actually see a reduction in the number of people behind bars and an increase in the number of law-abiding, tax-paying, family-supporting adults.

Here's what needs to happen: From the moment these offenders arrive in our prisons, they get intensive counseling, education, health assessment and drug treatment (methadone or buprenorphine, if needed), and job-preparation services. If they need to learn to read, we teach them to read. If they have no job skill, we teach them a job skill. If they have only one job skill, we teach them a second. If they have two, teach them a third. Let them take college courses online.

Everything that happens, from the moment they enter the system, is geared toward a better outcome when they leave prison.

Some vocational and personal services are available in our prisons, in Maryland and elsewhere. But they are scattered, limited and not presented in a comprehensive way. In hospital intensive-care units, the team concepts work best - doctors and nurses working together to provide the most consistent medical care toward the best patient outcomes. There should be a similar team approach for inmates in prisons.

There are several explanations for the nation's world-leading rate of incarceration (one in every 100 adults behind bars): the war on drugs, a retreat from rehabilitative programs in prisons, and a too-little/too-late approach to prisoner re-entry.

What we've been doing - approaching the problem of recidivism as a re-entry problem - has shown limited effectiveness. It's important that in Baltimore, in city government and among a few nonprofits, we have ex-offender employment services and job training beyond the walls. These are important services. But, for a lot of adult offenders, post-prison help comes too late. With all the obstacles they face - lingering addiction and the high probability of relapse, uncertain housing, no job skills, no income, limited access to employers who are willing to hire them, the temptations of the street - the probability of failure is high.

Who pays for that failure? Each of us, right out of our paychecks - taxes to keep hundreds of thousands of inmates behind bars and to support their children while they're away.

There are two other things that need to happen.

Political leaders with credibility (and I know that's a limited bunch) need to speak to the American people, plainly and simply, about this problem and the potential cost-benefit of putting corrections back into corrections. Most people get this. To most Americans, this approach constitutes common sense. It's their elected leaders who don't get it - or who worry that this kind of corrections reform will be seen as coddling criminals.

One other thing - those political leaders with credibility need to speak to the corporate class of this nation about breaking down the barriers to employment for ex-offenders. In recent years, and particularly since 9/11, those barriers have become too high. People who work in this field - prisoner re-entry, ex-offender services, drug treatment - need to stop talking to each other and issuing reports. They need to speak to those who can really make a difference - the ones who provide the jobs.

Getting on track

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