In her college-level classes in New York’s correctional institutions, Baz Dreisinger has students who come from all races and backgrounds, and they are often extremely intelligent.
The academic director of the Prison-to-College Pipeline at John Jay College of Criminal Justice has seen firsthand that no matter the prisoner’s background or continued access to higher education outside confinement, even the most talented students struggle to find solid work and safe housing after release.
“I had one student who was particularly bright,” Dreisinger recalls. "I was certain he was going to be successful.” On release, however, the student had no family to take him in, leaving him with one option: living in a dangerous halfway house.
“I watched his optimism deteriorate over the course of only one month,” said Dreisinger. “All the positive movements he made in prison seemed to be hindered by him moving in there.” Despite promises to continue his education on the outside, the student stopped attending classes.
“There is the trauma that occurs with being imprisoned that takes time to be unpacked,” Dreisinger said. “That requires a great deal of support.”
That trauma is imperative to keep in mind: The U.S. Sentencing Commission announced Friday that it plans to retroactively reduce sentences for those convicted of nonviolent drug crimes. The move could mean the early release of upwards of 46,000 felons currently held in federal penitentiaries, starting in November 2015. It could also mean more than a billion dollars a year in savings to taxpayers, given that it costs more than $30,000 annually to incarcerate a single inmate.
The Sentencing Commission’s decision has prisoners’ rights advocates cheering. “These new guidelines will give people a fighting chance,” said JoAnne Page, president of the Fortune Society, a nonprofit that helps recently released prisoners reintegrate into society.
“But,” she cautioned, “it’s still going to be a fight.”
The number of nonviolent drug offenders who are released without any supervision is on the rise, according to a study from the Pew Charitable Trusts released last month. The study found that in 2000, about 20 percent of these convicts were released without supervision. By 2011, that figure had grown to 31 percent.
Pew also found that “for many offenders, shorter prison terms followed by supervision have the potential to reduce both recidivism and overall corrections costs.”
As great as it is to see the punitive excess of the American drug war winding down, the work to ensure that these prisoners don’t wind up back in prison after release needs to begin in earnest.
Before the change in sentencing, 650,000 offenders of all stripes were being released from state and federal prisons each year. Nearly two-thirds of those released will likely be rearrested within three years if current rates of recidivism prevail, according to federal justice officials—and that only accounts for the ex-cons who are getting caught again.
The problems that lead to ex-cons reentering the system are numerous. Just like everyone else in America, they face an expensive housing market and extreme job competition. Unlike the rest of America, they had a roof over their heads and a job until the day they were released from prison. On top of that, the formerly incarcerated have to deal with the stigma of their felony conviction.
“Many localities put restrictions in place to ban felons from living in public housing,” said Page. “Landlords can easily obtain access to your criminal past. So if you’re forced to live on the streets, in a shelter, or a halfway house, your odds of success are obviously much lower.”
Part of the problem is that unlike in the job market, in housing no law prevents discrimination against former prisoners. “Simply creating such a law would do wonders toward helping to prevent recidivism,” Page said.
The drug war is winding down, but without a serious investment in reentry programs and laws to ensure those caught in its web won’t be penalized on the outside indefinitely, its effects will linger long after its harsh sentences disappear.
“If there is ever any place where investing public money is a win-win, it’s successful reentry,” said Page. “If we have the money to lock people up for decades, we have the money to try to reintegrate them back into society. Everyone benefits if this person doesn’t re-offend: the individual, his family, the community, the taxpayers. But if reentry goes badly, everyone loses.”