Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder announced another initiative to reduce recidivism and increase public safety. He directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to establish new guidelines for federal halfway houses, which hold offenders after their release from prison in order to ease their transition back into society. The new guidelines require them to provide additional resources to connect former inmates to employment opportunities, and provide access to mental health and substance abuse treatment. These new policies will also help ex-offenders find housing opportunities and reestablish ties to their family, friends and communities.
Studies have shown that connecting former inmates to employment opportunities and ensuring they are prepared to enter the workforce can vastly reduce the rate at which they return to prison. A report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center highlights the importance of considering job readiness when integrating former inmates back into their communities. Finding gainful employment is a significant challenge for the formerly incarcerated. On average, incarceration results in a 40 percent decrease in yearly earning and a 19 percent decrease in the weeks worked annually. In order to help individuals with a criminal background history succeed in the workplace, it is imperative that we move beyond providing traditional services that do not take into account the needs of individuals and address the specific barriers that hinder them from securing employment. An integrated approach that considers individuals’ specific needs, and matches them with the appropriate services, is critical to reducing recidivism.
But employment is only one of many challenges former inmates face. We also know that 46 percent of federal inmates suffer from substance abuse or dependency in the year prior to their arrest, and those problems often linger after release. As a result, access to post-release treatment is vital. Research finds that treating people with substance abuse and histories of mental illness can significantly reduce recidivism, particularly among women. A study of 1,182 women in the criminal justice system found that those who participated in post-prison treatment were 80 percent less likely to return to prison than those who did not complete treatment.
The BOP’s new guidelines to help federal halfway houses address these issues align with state-level success at implementing recidivism-reduction programs. Maryland is one example: since 2000, its recidivism rates have dropped by double digits. Gary Maynard, a top official at the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, credited that drop to the prison system's improved educational and job skills training programs, as well as increased medical and mental health services provided to inmates upon their release. In Michigan, the state’s heavy investment since 2003 in its Prisoner Reentry Program, which prioritizes funding for employment, housing and other transition support services, paid off with an 18 percent decline in recidivism.
BOP’s new policies build off these state successes at the national level. They are another meaningful step toward reducing recidivism and increasing public safety in our communities, as well as reducing our bloated and costly mass incarceration system.