If you want to see some really good ideas for helping ex-offenders nationwide, this research paper, courtesy of the Brookings Institution is a great place to start. It lays out some sensible strategies to improve the current patchwork of underfunded state and non-profit programs. Some of the suggestions I really like include:
1. Requiring education and work in prison. This isn’t about pampering and giving someone serving time for a felony special treatment. It’s about teaching inmates some of the basic skills they’re often missing and building discipline and workplace skills to put people on the path to constructive living upon their release. The authors suggest something similar to the office work and manufacturing as jobs that prisoners are currently doing in the federal system, then providing intensive pre-release preparation.
2. Setting up transitional employment for the first year. A no-brainer that would end up paying for itself in terms of reduced recidivism. The first six to eight months after release are the most vulnerable times for an ex-offender. So finding something productive to do is key. Currently, ex-offenders without incredibly unique and sought after skills (which is to say most of them) must rely on a handful of employers willing to hire people with records, or the kindness of friends and strangers to get jobs. Surveys show the majority of employers don’t want to be your first employer out of prison, but they wouldn’t mind being your second. So a program like this could give many people who might not otherwise even get in the door an opportunity to go to work and prove themselves right away. It would also allow them to gradually acclimate to their changed circumstances.
3. Providing housing assistance and intensive support and substance abuse treatment upon release. Again, this seems self evident, but there is surprising reluctance to put money into these services as opposed to incarceration. But more support at this point is key for the newly released, who are getting out to face a life in shambles and no support system. Funding provided here could prevent many of these individuals from falling back into crime and the expensive prison system.
4. Trying different sanctions for parole violations. The typical penalty is to send the offender back to jail, which starts the cycle all over again. In some states like California over half of offenders are sent back for these types of violations. Given the most vulnerable time for a felon is when he or she is just released and rebuilding, and often without support, a home or a job, let alone a daily structure, this can often be when he makes mistakes. The authors argue that not immediately sending people back to prison could be more constructive in the long-run.
What do you think? Those of you in the business and those of you who have served time? What kind of programs would be or have been most helpful to you?