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The Challenges of Reentry

Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos

Although most people admitted to jail over the course of a year are released within hours or days, rather than weeks or months, even a short stay is more than an inconvenience. Being detained is often the beginning of a journey through the criminal justice system that can take many wrong turns. Just a few days in jail can increase the likelihood of a sentence of incarceration and its harshness, reduce economic viability, promote future criminal behavior, and worsen the health of those who enter—making jail a gateway to deeper and more lasting involvement in the justice system at considerable costs to the people involved and to society at large. These costs are also borne by the families and communities of those in jail, in turn depressing economies, contributing to increased crime, and breaking familial and social bonds. For the disproportionately high number of those who enter jails from communities of color or who suffer from mental illness, addiction, or homelessness—or some combination of those—time spent in jail exacerbates already difficult conditions and propels many people into a cycle of incarceration that is extremely hard to break.

Prior to the late 1990s, jail reentry and jail discharge planning were virtually unheard of, and few jails provided services to support people as they left custody. In the past decade, however, jails have begun to implement new service models with the aim of reducing recidivism. For example, in collaboration with the New York City Department of Correction, Vera’s Substance Use and Mental Health Program developed and validated a low-cost and easy-to-implement tool for men—called the Service Priority Indicator—that jail officials can use to identify those who would benefit most from access to the system’s limited discharge planning resources.

Unfortunately, even in jurisdictions that are committed to providing jail reentry services, demand often outstrips available funding and programming.

But despite their high inmate turnover and heterogeneous populations, jails are well situated for reentry efforts. They are typically located near the communities to which people in jail will return, making outreach efforts easier to accomplish. Using a risk-and-needs-assessment instrument, jail reentry staff can work with community providers to develop reentry plans for people leaving jail that target their specific needs. Jurisdictions such as Douglas County, Kansas, and Davidson County, Tennessee, have introduced case planning and evidence-based programming in jail, and have developed networks of reentry providers that meet people while they are still in jail, work with them to build their case plans, and meet them on their release day to assist with the transition home.

With or without formal community supervision, people released from jail need basic reentry support. Most immediately, many people may need valid identification cards, particularly if they were homeless prior to incarceration. This is necessary to give them access to any benefits to which they may be entitled, such as Medicaid. They may also need assistance opening a bank account and applying for housing and job opportunities. For example, nearly 30 percent of people in U.S. jails reported unemployment in the month before their arrest. An additional 18 percent had only occasional employment and 11 percent had part-time employment before incarceration. Because so many people who find themselves in jail may be living with mental illness or a substance use disorder, providing them with medications and referrals to medical care in the community are imperative.

Although many factors can diminish a person’s chances of successfully reentering the community, debt is one of the most toxic. People often leave jail and prison responsible for criminal justice fines and fees and, combined with other financial burdens, those debts can become a major barrier to finding and maintaining employment, housing, and to family relationships, community ties, and stable mental and physical health—the very conditions known to support success. In some jurisdictions, non-payment of fines and fees results in immediate arrest and additional jail time. There are accounts of people who deliberately skip supervision appointments or miss court dates because they cannot pay their fines, setting in motion a process that will eventually lead them back to jail. When fines and fees loom large, some people may choose to return to jail if they cannot pay their debts.

Recent legislation in a growing number of states aims to tackle the issue of criminal justice debt and the barriers it creates for people trying to get back on their feet. For example, community supervision agencies in South Carolina now have the authority to restructure payment plans, stretching a person’s criminal justice debt over more years as a way to reduce monthly payments. In Washington state, judges can waive the interest people have accrued on debt to the criminal justice system that is not restitution, when people show that the payment of the accrued interest will cause hardship for them and their family, or if they have made a good faith effort to pay. Maine allows community service in lieu of cash payments, and Ohio, West Virginia, and New York allow for modified child-support payments following a period of incarceration.

Even where such options exist, people may not know about them or be able to navigate the administrative and court processes to take advantage of these rights. That’s why volunteers like CeCe Gannon can be so helpful to the reentry process. For many people, especially those without strong family connections, it’s necessary to have support in place to learn about and access the services already available while the system works to adjust and improve the reentry process as a whole.

Adapted from Vera’s 2015 report Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jail in America.