Our system of mass incarceration is not only immoral ― it is inefficient. The same people often cycle in and out of the system repeatedly, sometimes for decades.
People don’t resume illegal activity because they crave a life of addiction, stress, court, prison and shame. There is very little glamour or satisfaction in the reality of active addiction or illegal behavior. I know because I lived it.
On my journey from addiction and incarceration to college, law school, and serving at both the White House and The Sentencing Project, I’ve encountered thousands of incarcerated folks. Only one man told me he planned to return to his old behavior upon release. And even he said it was only because this was all he knew ― he had abandoned hope. Everyone else I met was determined to do everything they could to succeed.
The problem is society does not view people who have been incarcerated as returning citizens. Society labels us as ex-convicts, offenders, addicts or junkies. These beliefs lead to ongoing systemic barriers, making successful re-entry incredibly difficult or impossible. People who are released try tirelessly to obtain work to provide for their family, find housing, and obtain any necessary treatment and health care.
What happens after the 50th landlord tells you that you can’t rent an apartment because of your record, or the 50th employer explains that their company doesn’t hire “felons”? You become depressed and abandon hope. Hopelessness leads to desperation, and when pushed into a corner that appears to have no way out, people will revert to the behaviors that they know will provide relief.
The antidote to desperation is opportunity. We must provide people involved with the criminal justice system a meaningful opportunity to succeed once their debt to society has been paid. This must begin with substantial improvements to programs that offer education, job training, mentorship, and any necessary counseling and therapy. We must address underlying mental health and substance use disorders if we are to have any chance of promoting successful re-entry.
We also must use a largely untapped resource — those who have already overcome the odds and thrived after prison. Often, the best way to reach someone who is actively addicted or involved in the system is to provide a mentor who has overcome similar challenges. While allies, academics and other professionals are essential to the success of the movement away from mass incarceration, the value of using the direct experience of those people and communities that have been impacted most cannot be overemphasized. If there were two guides — one who had read a book about a dangerous hiking trail and another who had traveled down it and survived — whom would you trust to lead you?
Michigan is one example of where embracing these principles led to a dramatic reduction in recidivism. The Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative developed holistic, community-based re-entry strategies, including preparing comprehensive re-entry plans for individuals upon their entry into the system rather than scrambling to assemble a plan just before release. Plans are developed based on the needs and resources of each community as well as on the characteristics of the person being released. The plans address key areas, including housing, employment, substance use services, mental health, transportation and victim services, and must involve local law enforcement and faith-based institutions. Each plan addresses local assets and gaps for each of the key areas and are designed to build upon existing services. Community stakeholders are brought in as key partners to the re-entry process — not as an afterthought. After the initiative’s implementation, Michigan experienced an 18 percent reduction in recidivism.
Developing methods to encourage successful re-entry makes sense regardless of one’s political views. When people are provided pathways toward meaningful lives after incarceration, the likelihood of further trouble with the law decreases. That’s why I’m delighted that the White House and Department of Justice launched National Reentry week, which promotes programs to encourage successful re-entry to society after involvement with the criminal justice system.
Implementing programs to provide mentorship, mental health or substance use treatment, job training and education is not “coddling convicts.” Rather, it is an effective way to help people grow into productive members of society. It is vastly more humane and less expensive to provide people the necessary tools to pull themselves out of the often-generational cycle of poverty, addiction and incarceration than it is to ignore the causes of recidivism, effectively relegating people to what amounts to a life sentence on an installment plan.
Christopher Poulos is a Maine native and executive director of Life of Purpose Treatment at the University of North Texas.