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.
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.
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.
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.
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.