Hard time: ex-offenders returning home after prison.

Author:Petersilia, Joan

Never before in U.S. history have so many individuals been released from prison. More than 600,000 people--1,600 a day--were released in 2003, a number nearly equal to the population of Washington, D.C., and greater than the state of Wyoming. The number is expected to grow in future years as more inmates complete long prison terms. Just 7 percent of all inmates are serving sentences of death or life with out parole, and only a fraction of inmates--about 3,000 each year--die in prison. Thus, 93 percent of all inmates eventually return home.

Society has always struggled with how best to help inmates re-integrate once released, but the current situation is unprecedented. The number of returning offenders dwarfs anything in America's history. The needs of offenders appear more serious, the parole system retains few rehabilitation programs, and the housing and employment barriers offenders face upon return are more daunting. It is now time to design effective reentry programs. To do so, corrections professionals must better understand the characteristics of inmates coming home, the needs and risks offenders represent, and society's legal and practical barriers to re-integration.

Who Is Coming Home?

Most of those released from prison today have serious social and medical problems. More than three-fourths of the inmates scheduled for release in the next year report a history of drug and/or alcohol abuse. One-fourth have histories of injection drug use and 16 percent report a mental condition. Yet less than one-third of exiting inmates received substance abuse or mental health treatment in prison. And while some states have provided more funding for prison drug treatment, the percentage of state inmates participating in such programs has been declining, from 25 percent a decade ago to about 10 percent today, according to Prisoner Reentry in Perspective. (1)

Few inmates have marketable skills or sufficient literacy to become gainfully employed. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one-third of all U.S. inmates were unemployed at their most recent arrest, and only 60 percent of inmates have a GED or high school diploma (compared with 85 percent of the U.S. adult population). The National Adult Literacy Survey established that 11 percent of inmates, compared with 3 percent of the general U.S. population, have a learning disability, and 3 percent are mentally retarded.

Again, despite evidence that inmates' literacy and job readiness has declined in the past decade, fewer inmates are participating in prison education or vocational programs. Today, only 25 percent of all those released from prison will have participated in vocational training programs, and about one-third of exiting inmates will have participated in education programs--both figures down from a decade ago, Prisoner Reentry in Perspective indicates.

Preparing Inmates For Release

If inmate needs are more serious than in the past, why have the programs to meet those needs declined? Part of the problem is money, which is even more of a problem now with a declining economy. The nation now spends about $31 billion a year to operate the nation's prisons. By adding in jail, probation and parole, the nation spends nearly $50 billion annually on corrections.

These dollars have not funded more treatment and work programs, but rather prison staff, construction and rising prison health care costs. Inmates are the only U.S. citizens who have a constitutional right to receive free medical care because they are not able to seek care on their own. As the inmate population has gotten older and sicker, data from the American Correctional Association indicate that inmate health care costs have risen from an annual average of $880 per inmate in 1982 to nearly $3,300 per inmate in 2003. According to the 2003 Corrections Yearbook by the Criminal Justice Institute Inc., medical budgets comprise, on average, 10 percent to 12 percent of a state's total correctional operating budget, and that percentage is increasing each year. Prison treatment programs, on the other hand, comprise 1 percent to 5 percent of state prison budgets, and that percentage is decreasing each year. At least 25 states report having made cuts in vocational and technical training, the areas most likely to provide inmates with an alternative career when they leave prison.

Ironically, as inmate needs have increased and in-prison programs decreased, parole supervision and services have also decreased for most reentering inmates. In 1977, just 4 percent of all inmates released "maxed out" or served the maximum amount of time allowed by law for their criminal conviction. But today, 18 percent--or nearly one in five of all exiting inmates--max out, having no obligation to report to a parole officer or abide by any other conditions of release. (2) That is about 150,000 inmates a year, or about the same number of total parole releases in 1980.

This all results in higher-risk inmates going into prison, fewer programs and more idle time while in prison, and a greater number getting out of prison without the benefits and control of parole supervision. Some worry that inmate reentry equates to inmate recidivism and may lead to increased crime rates. FBI statistics show that murder increased 1.7 percent in 2003, the only crime type to show an...

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