Every year in the United State, more than 9 million men and women are released from jail or prison, meaning that each week, nearly 175,000 will return to the community. Many of these men and women will never regain their full citizenship even though they have fully paid their debt to society.
They will not be able to vote, receive student loans or be able to secure public housing. This adds stress to an already overburdened and underfunded service delivery system and creates barriers to obtaining food, employment and housing, which stands in the way of a successful return to the community.
It’s time for a different approach — one that focuses on a restorative model.
When individuals return to their communities after being incarcerated, they tend to cluster in the most disadvantaged and under-resourced neighborhoods, places with concentrated poverty and economic segregation. We must tackle these challenges, not only to help those who have been involved in the criminal justice system, but also to strengthen families, reduce delinquency, decrease health problems and increase the economic stability of the community as a whole.
A restorative model that is person-centered and community-focused is a viable approach to help begin healing the individuals, families and communities that have been impacted by incarceration. The community benefits when citizens work, pay taxes and become more civic minded.
This creates an environment where children are safer and can better develop into emotionally stable and productive citizens, breaking the cycle of intergenerational incarceration. A restorative model considers these factors and engages communities in seeking solutions to smart crime reductions.
We have largely ignored the inherent strength of community-based organizations and have relied on incarceration as a primary intervention for crime reduction and deterrence. The resources committed to building costly prisons could be better spent on safe and effective community-based diversion programs.
Our current practice is not sustainable, nor is it in our best interest to continue an approach to criminal justice that has done more harm than good. Therefore reallocations of resources to community-based services that are addressing the drivers of crime are a better use of the public’s funds.
For example, taking resources from state prison budgets and reallocating the funds to the counties to improve and expand community supervision programs such as specialized drug courts or veterans court. This would incentivize the county to divert more residents to these programs.
The state of Texas is an interesting case study, in that it has the highest number of incarcerated individuals in a nation that has the highest prison population in the world. In Texas, 94 prison units and 20 state jail facilities house approximately 155,000 men and women at an average cost of $18,500 per individual, per year. Nearly half of those who are released are rearrested within three years.
This can be attributed to a lack of case management and support that assist the returning citizens in locating housing and obtaining employment and mental health services. In focusing resources away from prison beds and toward community-based programs, we can reduce the prison population and build safe communities.
If services for returning citizens were centralized, it would reduce the challenges and barriers to accessing needed services.
An example of a restorative model can be found at Goodwill of Central Texas in Austin. Goodwill Industries has a long history of working with the formerly incarcerated and their families. They recently developed a pilot program designed to address the long-term needs of criminal justice involved individuals.
The program is focused on assessment and intensive case management. Goodwill recognizes that people returning to the community needed more support and services to carry them through their transition back to work and school.
We have learned that when people have access to quality services, they become more productive and socially engaged. These smart decarceration strategies will decrease the prison population and improve outcomes for formerly incarcerated people while preserving public safety.
Now is the time for our lawmakers to reverse the effects of mass incarceration on individuals and communities and focus more on an approach that is restoratively focused.
Terrence Allen is an assistant professor of social work at The University of Texas at Austin. Reginald Smith is a student in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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