Help ex-inmates lead productive lives

Finding prosperity after prison
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  • Most men and women return home from prison ill-equipped to thrive, says Gerard Robinson
  • Three quarters of ex-inmates are rearrested within five years, he says

Gerard Robinson is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Robinson formerly served as commissioner of education for the state of Florida and secretary of education for the commonwealth of Virginia. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Every year, about 600,000 men and women (the equivalent of the city of Baltimore) return to communities across the country without anyone much noticing. Astonishingly, 1 out of 30 American adults have made this journey home over the last few decades.

Gerard Robinson
They occupy the ranks of a forgotten (and much maligned) class: the formerly incarcerated. Nearly 8 million strong, these "returned citizens" struggle to find work and if they do, they earn substantially less than their counterparts. This is partly because of stigma and partly because of lack of education, skills and work experience in time lost behind bars.
    As a result, they disproportionately rely on government aid and are more likely to be homeless and develop chronic and acute illnesses. Unfortunately for them and for society, all too many return to the habits and lifestyles that sent them to prison in the first place.
    This year's National Reentry Week (April 24-30) represents a unique opportunity to shine a light on the challenge of turning the formerly incarcerated into productive, "returned citizens." The White House hosted an event Monday with the Brennan Center for Justice and American Enterprise Institute to discuss the findings of a Council of Economic Advisers' report outlining the economic costs of failure to successfully integrate ex-offenders into society.
    Of those released from prison, one-third are rearrested in their first year out, 57% within three years and over three-quarters within five years. That means that less than one in four ex-offenders manage to stay out of trouble in their first years back in society, according to a 2014 Justice Department study. That same study found that the younger the offender, the more likely he or she is to have another run-in with the law after release from state custody.
    But you don't need to have much sympathy for those who spent time locked behind bars to believe we should do better by the formerly incarcerated -- you just want to have safer streets. Our prisons are making those sent away better at harming innocent, law-abiding citizens.
    The racial and socioeconomic disparities, coupled with a generally dehumanizing experience in prison, have also fueled a national movement to "reform" criminal justice laws in recent years. Many conservatives and liberals are embracing the notion that eliminating some of the "tough on crime" policies of the 1980s and 1990s, like mandatory minimums, harsh sentences for crack cocaine and other drugs, and voting and job discrimination for ex-offenders.
    This approach might be a worthy proposition, but criminal justice "reformers" cannot expect that reducing sentences or suffrage alone will do much for the day-to-day lives of the formerly incarcerated. Just as important, this approach still leaves the safety of their neighbors, and the peace of our communities, in the balance.
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    Because the average length of an incarcerated individual's prison stay is less than three years and 95% of prison terms are for less than life, the vast majority of the prison population is coming home at some point.
    Unfortunately, too little emphasis is paid to this population, and the back-end efforts they need to be successful upon their release. Both state and federal attempts to reform the criminal justice system have focused on the entering inmate class, either by reducing the penalties or dissuading offenses in the first place. Lofty aims indeed, but they ignore the elephant in the room -- what to do with offenders during and after their time in prison.
    Preparation for the outside world is key for the incarcerated, but both state and federal systems have drastically cut spending on in-prison training over time and often provide little to no support (other than a few dollars and a bus ticket) to offenders upon release.
    Unsurprisingly, exiting the prison gates becomes a daunting journey for most of the formerly incarcerated. Men and women, many who return to children they left behind, have lost their social support systems, any legitimate work they may have had, and in too many cases, are deeply in debt with legal and child support fees.
    To help these returning citizens on their path back to productive and full lives, we must do more. Local, state and federal agencies spend just a tiny fraction of their criminal justice budgets on resources that empower the formerly incarcerated. Recent research into "what works" in reducing recidivism and easing the re-entry process is severely lacking.
    What little does exist suggests that successful re-entry starts behind bars, when prisoners themselves choose to change their lives, learn basic skills, and begin to plan for a life on the outside. Upon release, the most effective programs help returning citizens reconnect with positive social connections, find work and housing immediately, and get and stay both mentally and physically healthy.
    One such program, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program in Texas, helps the incarcerated build up their life and business skills on the inside and meets them at the prison gates. From there, returning citizens are connected with family, housing, health care and jobs. Many of the program's graduates go on to start their own businesses while only 7% find themselves in trouble with the law within three years. It accomplishes all this without a penny of government money.
    That model, which bridges the inside and outside worlds, offers returned citizens hope for the future and an opportunity to change their own lives for the better.
    Neither government nor nonprofits can solve this problem in isolation. Leaders from corporate, philanthropic and faith-based communities must also help returned citizens. In turn, this civil society approach will empower them to help themselves. Let us not forget that they are our neighbors, friends and fellow citizens and deserve the dignity and promise of the American Dream once their sentence is paid.