Is “reentry” really what it sounds like—a return to home, work, and society? Many communities demonstrate that reentry is really something more complex and challenging, for both the person returning and the community into which he or she returns. This article presents ground-level truths from practitioners who are successfully returning former inmates to home and hearth. They make the case that we need to change the discussion from reentry to post-release aftercare services to discover what returning home for good really entails. Police executives are uniquely positioned to help lead the reintegration of former inmates into their communities.
Why do we need to understand the work of returning the formerly incarcerated? First, there are a staggering number of people returning to communities from incarceration; many recidivate repeatedly, and those numbers stand to increase. On the front end, there is an explosion of punishable offenses; there appear to be few really effective and permanent solutions to drugs, gangs, juvenile delinquency, and poverty. A 2011 exposé in the Wall Street Journal claimed that criminal law has spun out of control. Federal prosecutions per 100,000 people rose from 192 in 1980 to 395 in 2013, a twofold increase in about 30 years. While many people really need to be “put away,” increasing numbers of the incarcerated are there for less than the best reasons.1 Current overcrowding in correction facilities and limited resources mean that more offenders than ever serve their sentences or have them curtailed and are literally left at the bus stop wondering what to do. There were, at the end of 2010, an estimated 7,076,200 people under the control of the U.S. corrections system, which includes prisons, jails, and parole programs.2 Of the 750,000 people, on average, released annually from incarceration, fully two-thirds of them will be rearrested for a new crime within three years of release, many of them multiple times.3 The costs of arresting, convicting, incarcerating, rehabilitating, and releasing repeat offenders are staggering, especially when considering the non-monetary cost of decreased community safety, the missed opportunities for alternative uses of criminal justice resources and especially the lost societal productivity of an inmate. Clearly, the current state of reentry leaves much to be desired.
This was an on-site inquiry to determine how successfully post-release programs in one state, North Carolina, deliver their services. The literature revealed the major reentry knowledge base and programs, which in turn suggested other programs that focused on transitioning the formerly incarcerated. The study sites were chosen from 24 sites suggested by state reentry specialists at the North Carolina Governor’s Crime Commission, using a range of criteria. First, and most importantly, the program had to be self-renewing and socially transformative. That is, they had to be permanent, as demonstrated by being able to generate reliable operational resources and they had to be making measurable improvements in the community. The selected sites also needed to be mature and had to have considered or gone through the process of planning, operating, and stabilizing their programs. This demonstrated that practitioners understood how to build program capacity. An added bonus was that each site was also expanding. The sites also were chosen to represent geographic dispersion throughout the state and were located in the third, fifth, and eighth most populous cities in North Carolina, which represent about six percent of the state population. The professionals at the sites also had to be willing to cooperate on extensive interviews with staff, board, and community members. Interviewees were selected from key staff and those who had key insights or knowledge about the program in question. Two dozen people participated in nearly 40 in-depth interviews, and interviews were conducted with an extensive checklist that covered the process of building a new local service idea. Electronic communication with other sites served to round out the interview comments. Finally, the sites had to be focused on transitional aftercare services. This is quite important as aftercare services are those services which happen after reentry from incarceration and make going home actually possible. The sites selected also model various ways of delivering post-release services, day and residential, that a municipality may wish to replicate or build upon. The sites collectively represent decades of experience successfully effecting former inmate reintegration and measurably improving their communities.
The good news is that there are many examples of local programs and experienced practitioners who demonstrate that returning a former inmate to productivity in the community is very doable and worthwhile. In fact, their work proves that while the answers may not be easy, they are not complicated either.
In considering reentry, it’s important to understand some reentry myths.
The returning population comes mostly from prisons and jail.
The population of those who need to be kept out of the criminal justice system includes those under court supervision, who are both more numerous and at greater risk of recidivating This changes the overall demographic of the target population and directs the focus of services to what needs to be done after release, and more important, how it needs to be done and who should do specific tasks. By considering this wider population, a host of alternatives to courts and corrections becomes apparent with subsequent and dramatic savings in public dollars and resources.
Reentry services are the best strategy to return a former inmate to the community.
A continuum of services between public and private institutions and service providers, in particular courts, corrections, and community agencies, is the best strategy to deliver aftercare reintegration services Reentry is programming that is institutional based and merely begins an inmate’s preparation to return home and stay away from the criminal justice system and public services. By focusing on aftercare the most effective mix of services, especially local services, becomes more apparent.
Public institutions are primarily responsible for reentry.
A successful transition is not only the responsibility of public institutions, but also of the communities that receive the former inmate. Yes, reintroduction into the community should begin with training and education during incarceration, but the actual transition of a former offender begins on this side of the gate, which changes the situation. The major change is that planning and programming shifts focus from the criminal justice institutional response to local municipal networked solutions, which combine public, private, and local resources. The criminal justice system is designed to enforce the law and carry out a sentence, essentially. By definition it cannot and should not complete the very long and complex work of reintegration. But the criminal justice system can be integral to reintegrating returnees.
There are few local services to help with a successful return home.
There is a wealth of local post-release services. The problem is they are not sufficiently mobilized toward the work of transition. Successful local transitional programs become the unifying force multiplier for disparate services by networking them together.
The primary outcome of reentry and post-release services is to reduce recidivism.
Reducing recidivism is only an immediate result of these efforts. The ultimate goal is to keep someone home permanently and productive. If the focus is largely on preventing people from cycling through the criminal justice system, there is a tendency to neglect the causes of criminality. Focus on post-release aftercare services tends to address the individual reasons for recidivism—issues like substance addictions, mental illnesses, and lack of skills or work experience, to name a few common causes. The North Carolina Department of Corrections estimates that the state’s prisons have more than double (56 percent) the national estimate of people with mental illnesses and nearly triple (73 percent) for female inmates. Former inmates often have unhealthy social networks and little or no work experience or marketable skills. Some have never had a job, even for a little while. The work of a permanent transition has to address these problems and issues.
The problem is reentry.
The true problem is capacity building. Reentry, though often seen as a problem, is largely a task of preparing an individual for release from incarceration. Since the broader task is providing post-release services, the challenge is building the infrastructure that supports those services. That is a job of program capacity building. Successful transitional programs build a network of partners, stakeholders, and collaborators. They muster local services such as mental and substance abuse counselors. They develop permanent streams of funding. They assemble a team of performance-oriented staff. They understand how to measure performance and improve processes. Successful transitional programs focus on building the permanent capacity to deliver services that make returning home—for good—a reality. Again, the focus on “reentry” does a disservice to the community-based work of rebuilding and reintroducing the former inmate to meaningful work, back home, crime free and permanently.
All it takes is money.
Funds are important, but what matters more is how resources are gathered, shaped, and directed to the tasks of returning people to society and productivity. Resources are built by developing trust-based relationships that are created over years. From their very first days, successful models set about building those relationships by delivering what they promise, making a measurable difference in the things that matter to stakeholders in the community, and being necessarily inclusionary. Not everyone has to be at the table, just the few who are prepared to do the long term work of program capacity building. With credibility comes support, including sources of funding.
Evidence-based practices (EBPs) are the key to a permanent return to the community.
EBPs are only part of a successful transition, not the key. The how is much more important than the what. The fact that there is a scientific basis to an idea is no guarantee it will work in all locations. Much original and continuous fitting, assessing and adjusting have to be done to make an EPB work initially and continue to function as designed. Much, much more than an EBP has to happen to transition someone.
Fortunately, there are real answers to these myths, and many communities have programs that are working. There is much to learn from them, and they are willing to share.
Who’s Got It Right – Examples of Successful Post-Release Services Programs
The sites that provided insights were chosen for their approaches to providing post-release transitional services. They represent decades of success: Dismas Charities began in 1964; Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers began in the early 1990s with a proven model of sustainable enterprises; the Durham County Criminal Justice Resource Center began in the latter 1990s as the first reentry day services center in North Carolina; and Leading into New Communities began in 2000 to model a small residential operation. These exemplary programs are actually reforming the way public services are being delivered. They have “got it right.”
Dismas Charities, which began in 1964, is a unique alternative to the expensive criminal justice system.5 Their philosophy of non-residential and residential treatment and supervision is “healing the human spirit.” It is a proven mix of cost-effective re-integration programming that involves community services, local employers, and a therapeutic environment. Dismas successfully collaborates with the Federal Bureau of Prisons for community-based corrections, demonstrating the efficiency and effectiveness of public/private partnerships.
Dismas has 29 sites in 12 states and has an 82 percent completion rate. Most of their graduates do not return to the criminal justice system. Former U.S. senator from New Mexico, Jim Bingaman, observed, “The excellent quality of [Dismas’s] work in operating a re-entry center under contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons has increased economic development…increased public safety [and] the crime rate decreased significantly. It is a credit to have such an organization as professional as this operating in Las Cruces.”
Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers (TROSA)
TROSA, in Durham, North Carolina, is a full-service residential program that teaches career and life skills such as communication and leadership.6 Residents learn responsibility in TROSA’s therapeutic environment and follow their motto of self-help and empowerment: “Each One, Teach One.” Staff members understand that transition from the criminal justice system to the community can take years, so TROSA’s programming extends from immediate needs through recovery and aftercare. Established in 1994 by Kevin McDonald with a credit card and “a little cash,” the program originally served nine former inmates. Now it serves over 400, and TROSA works so well that judges sentence offenders to TROSA at no public cost.7 The residents have access to a number of services, including the following:
- Vocational training – Enterprises such as a moving company, a picture framing business, and contract labor teach self-reliance and build career potential while simultaneously helping residents conquer substance abuse with the dignity and responsibility of a real job.
- Education – TROSA helps residents earn their GED, with the possibility of a TROSA-funded college education. The program also offers computer and continuing education classes.
- Peer counseling and mentoring – The “Therapeutic Community” model is based on peer counseling and professional services.
- Aftercare – Recovery is not complete until a resident takes his or her place at home, so TROSA provides housing, transportation, and support in the final stage of returning home.
TROSA’s 2012–2013 Annual Report says it all— 400,000 meals prepared; 5,000 medical visits; 3,700 volunteer hours provided; 799 people served; 148 men moved into new dormitories; 128 residents earned driver’s licenses; 92 residents prepared for GED; 54 residents took college courses; and 41 residents earned commercial driver’s licenses. All graduates of this demanding two-year program leave with a job, and all of this is done with no cost to the public. It can be done!8
Durham County Criminal Justice Resource Center (CJRC)
The CJRC in Durham, North Carolina, is a long-standing example of a non-residential day program. The department’s services focus on three goals.9
- Successful transitions – The CJRC delivers transitional services to former offenders and at-risk youth.
- Improved public safety – The focus is on post-release services, which reduce recidivism and increase community safety and security.
- Information sharing – The department has developed a user friendly real-time database of client background information and demographics while it is a case management tool that is shared with stakeholders, including court officials.
The highest service needs of CJRC’s clients are for housing assistance, substance abuse treatment, and employment services. The CJRC served 1,964 clients in FY 2007–2010, and 75 percent of program graduates had no arrests in the year following case closure.10
Leading Into New Communities (LINC)
LINC, Inc. in Wilmington, North Carolina, is a small residential facility which began with 10 residential beds. LINC provides direct services and has an extensive network of services and community resources that allow staff to serve a large clientele base of both adults and juveniles. Its therapeutic community offers education such as GED and literacy classes, intervention services to reduce criminal behavior, and medical and mental health services.
LINC staff report that they served 578 individuals from 2002 to 2009; of that number 55 (less than 10 percent) went back to prison. In 2010–2012, LINC served 150 individuals and 7 (less than 5 percent) went back to prison. With those successes on record, LINC opened a state-of–the-art, 40-bed, full-service facility for men and women during the summer of 2012. The new facility was an abandoned jail, which the organization rents from the county for $1.00 per year. It received a $1.4M renovation, with the goal of paying it off in less than five years by in-house enterprise businesses, according to the Executive Director.
Lessons to Learn from These Reform-Minded Models
What these programs demonstrate goes beyond straight-up effectiveness in transitioning former offenders. They also epitomize essential qualities for successful programs to deliver public services now and especially in the future.
- They exemplify 21st century governance.
- They focus on process matrix solutions – each has a mix of stakeholders assembled according to the local problem definition, capacity to deliver services, and program needs. The focus is on the all-important processes of building a permanent program and independent people rather than just reducing recidivism while a client is in a reentry program.
- They have built a continuum of services across agencies – they recognize that transitioning a former inmate is a long-term process that needs a collaboration of public, private, and nonprofit stakeholders to help a resident make serious personal and lifestyle changes away from crime and into the community.
They multiply local resources – disparate resources are better allocated when they are focused together on a single goal.
- They achieve significant cost savings – matrix solutions are performed with notable efficiency, effectiveness and especially cost savings by distributing program expenses across sectors.
- They exemplify how to build an idea into a self-renewing entity.
- Leadership is task and process oriented – senior staff and board members are selected for long-term program capacity building work and individual talents.
- Scope is limited and realistic – each site began by serving a few clients. They grew incrementally, and only when another client could be accommodated.
- Service capacities are fully understood – Program practitioners understand the limits of what their program and the community can deliver.
- They are data based – program practitioners have a sophisticated grasp of measurement. Their impact and process data are self-generated. Data is real-time and used for decision making nearly minute-by-minute.
- Resources are multi-sourced – resources are developed first by building relationships based on credibility—they deliver what they promise. Money is largely sourced from permanent funding streams rather than overdependence on soft (grant) dollars.
- Selected services are performance oriented and contribute to overall goal accomplishment – each service in the array of programming has to measurably contribute to the project purpose or it is modified or cancelled if it does not contribute to program goals.
- Staff form a “family” team of goal-oriented professionals – staff are continuously challenged and afforded opportunities for growth via training, education, and professional development.
If there is a word to capture these exemplary sites, it is “practical.” They do less, not more, but do it better. They realize that this work is vital and can be overwhelming in its intention and scope, so they work on only what can be done well. Each site has variations on the theme of “one at a time.”
These programs give us excellent examples for how to successfully confront a problem that affects every community in the United States—that of people returning from incarceration and under court supervision. These numbers will increase as correctional budgets are slashed and the courts reduce prison populations. More communities can, and should, emulate the work highlighted by these models. Staff at these sites have solved many of the implementation problems that plague public-private endeavors, and they operate efficiently and effectively. They are stable and growing, and they better the community, significantly. They understand that the work of post-release aftercare is not only about reentry, it is also about delivering a networked continuum of services which is at the heart of how 21st Century law enforcement agencies must build and deliver services. Underlying this understanding is a recognition that much of the responsibility for successfully reintegrating former inmates lies with the community, with an emphasis on post-release services. In fact these model programs are reforming how the criminal al justice system can work better, from the bottom-up, by truly collaborating with the community. The message successful local leaders and practitioners relate is that to move transitioning inmates forward, the focus needs to shift from “reentry” to “post-release services.” Only then can this work achieve real improvements in community safety, security and wellbeing. Building networks of local services is an opportunity for police executives to lead since they are in and of the community.♦
This article is from a forthcoming book: From the Bottom Up: Reforming the Criminal Justice System with Capacity Building, Reentry and a Movement. Civic Research Institute, Inc., Release early 2015.
1 Gary Fields and John R. Emshwiller, “As Criminal Laws Proliferate, More Are Ensnared,” The Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052748703749504576172714184601654 (accessed March 13, 2014).
2 Lauren E. Glaze, Correctional Population in the United States, 2009, Bureau of Justice Statistics NCJ 231681, (Washington, DC: Department of Justice, December 2010), 2, 7, http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cpus10.pdf (accessed January 2, 2012).
3 “Breaking the Mold: Innovations and Bold Ventures in Criminology,” (the 63rd Annual Meeting of the American Society of Criminology, Washington, D.C. November 16–19, 2011).
4 Doris J. James and Lauren E. Glaze, Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates, NCJ 213600 (September 2006), http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pubs/pdf/mhppji.htm (accessed January 5, 2012).
5 Dismas Charities, Inc., “Home page,” http://www.dismas.com (accessed March 13, 2014).
6 TROSA, Inc., “Home page,” http://www.trosainc.org (accessed March 13, 2014).
7 TROSA program staff, interviews with author.
8 TROSA, Inc., 2012–2013 Annual Report, http://www.trosainc.org/images/stories/trosa/Reports/2012-13%20TROSA%20Annual%20Report_Web.pdf (accessed March 19, 2014).
9 “Criminal Justice Resource Center,” Durham County, Inc., http://www.durhamcountync.gov/departments/cjrc (accessed March 13, 2014).
10 “CJRC Community Based Corrections 2010–11 Performance Measure,” Durham County, http://dconc.gov/modules/showdocument.aspx?documentid=1122 (accessed March 13, 2014).
12 LINC, “Home page,” http://www.lincnc.org (accessed March 13, 2014).
is a retired Air Force officer and has 23 years experience on the North Carolina Governor’s Crime Commission as a policy analyst. He is also on the faculty of the International Academy of Public Safety where he lectures on Capacity Building for Law Enforcement Leaders.
Mr. Hoina is a Subject Matter Expert on the faculty of the International Academy of Public Safety with over 25 years of increasing responsibilities with the Cary, North Carolina, Police Department. He has also directed the Criminal Justice program at Campbell University, Research Triangle Park and is an FBI National Academy graduate.
Please cite as
James Klopovic and Christopher M. Hoina, “Returning Home for Good: Is It Reentry or Really Post-Release Aftercare?” Web-only article, The Police Chief 81 (April 2014).