When I tell people that part of my work involves heading up a project on prisoner reentry reform, I’m often met by puzzled looks. Given my organization’s other work – including fighting for education reform and school choice, encouraging stronger families, and combating human trafficking, etc. – many understandably wonder where prisoner reentry fits.
On the surface the answer is not necessarily obvious but, once I explain what motivates our work, the connection normally becomes clearer.
Over the last decade, part of our work involved efforts to strengthen families in the inner city through helping community leaders improve family life by offering workshops on relationship skills, conflict resolution, financial management, and similar topics to people in the community. The thinking – supported by the evidence and common sense – is that if you can improve relationships among family and community members, you can help improve many of the social problems people face. When you do this kind of work in the inner city, you quickly find that you can’t strengthen families there very successfully without also addressing the impact of incarceration, which too many inner-city families experience – especially in Georgia.
In 2009, the Pew Center on the States released a study showing that Georgia led the country with 1 in 13 adults under some form of correctional supervision. Nationally, the number is 1 in 31. The Georgia number includes some 56,000 prisoners and 160,000 probationers. Annually an average of 20,000 prisoners are released and, as our experience in inner-city Atlanta confirmed, most are not prepared to be successful outside the prison walls. Of those released nationally, nearly 65 percent will be re-arrested in three years and, in Georgia, about 30 percent will find themselves back in prison within that time.
That is why we launched our prisoner reentry working group in July after many months of research, dozens of interviews, and visits to four state prison facilities. Our nine working group members consist of individuals with considerable expertise in Georgia’s correctional system and a strong interest in improving outcomes for prisoners returning to the community. The working group will meet monthly over the next year to develop policy and service related recommendations on ways our state can improve prisoner reentry to reduce recidivism while improving positive outcomes for prisoners (like job attainment and retention, housing stability, and staying sober and drug-free, among others).
During our first meeting, the group quickly decided upon several broad areas of focus for their work over the next year. Those areas include
- Employment: Looking at ways to remove barriers to and increase opportunities for prisoners to obtain and retain employment upon release
- Reentry Courts: Exploring how the state might create courts that specialize in working with prisoners as they are reentering the community
- Transitional Centers: Finding ways to increase the capacity of Georgia’s transitional centers to serve more people and looking at whether centers specialized to work with specific kinds of offenders could be more effective in reducing recidivism
While each of these topics is large, the working group is committed to zeroing in on very specific, common sense ways to improve each area that offer the greatest potential for measurable improvement.
In the coming weeks, we will be posting updates on the working group’s progress. Needless to say, we are encouraged by the work the group has done so far and by the level of commitment each person has shown in improving outcomes for reentering prisoners.