Re-entering Society from Prison
The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and the majority of incarcerated offenders will eventually be released back into society. While much attention has been paid to the dramatic increase in the incarceration rate since the mid-1970s, little attention has been paid to the corresponding increase in ex-prisoners who are rejoining society. The terms of a prisoner's release—whether release comes from exoneration, serving an entire sentence, or early conditional release through a parole board —have an impact on how an ex-prisoner reintegrates into society. Generally ex-prisoners face many problems, from disenfranchisement to difficulties finding employment and housing, to high recidivism rates and health problems.
Keywords Disenfranchisement; Felony; Labeling; Parole; Penology; Probation; Recidivism; Social Control; Stigmatization
The United States has one of the largest prison populations in the world (Reiman, 2004). From 1970 to 2008, the number of prisoners went from around 300,000 to around 2.5 million, which means that the United States has the highest imprisonment rate in the world. According to data from the International Centre for Prison Studies, approximately 716 per 100,000 people were incarcerated in the United States in 2012. There are many explanations for this high rate: the excessive rate of violent crime in the United States; the association of crime with stigmatized groups; increasingly harsh penalties for nonviolent crimes, especially drug crimes; and a focus on punishment rather than rehabilitation (Mauer and Coyle, 2004). Still others have pointed to what activist Angela Davis dubbed the prison-industrial complex, the powerful political lobbying groups that promote the interests of the businesses involved in operating and supplying government prison agencies, by advocating for strict sentencing laws and other policies designed to increase the prison population and thereby prison revenues. Despite the attention paid to the increased number of prisoners, little public discussion exists about the inevitable result of this increase: there has also been an enormous increase in the number of former inmates who have re-entered society. Most prisoners will eventually re-enter society, a process that has changed substantially in the last few decades. The increase in the incarceration rate, decreases in funding for many social programs, a harsher societal attitude toward crime, and stricter legal penalties for reoffending have all made the experience of re-entry different and more difficult than in the past (Seiter & Kadela, 2003).
Felons are people who have been convicted of a felony, a crime that has been characterized by the state as serious in nature and warrants a prison term over one year. Classification of crimes as misdemeanors or felonies differs from state to state. Minorities are charged with felonies at a higher rate than whites (Walker, Spohn and DeLone, 2004). Minorities are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be convicted, and more likely to receive stiffer sentences for the same crimes as their white counterparts. This results from both racial profiling and also from legislation that is written in such a way as to disproportionately affect minority groups (Mauer, 2007). Social attitudes toward race create yet another obstacle to reintegration into society after prison. In addition to barriers based on pre-existing racial and ethnic divisions, there are also barriers to obtaining adequate housing and well-paying jobs created by one’s felony status (Liker, 1982; Copenhaver, Edwards-Willey, & Byers, 2007).
Many felons are released back into the communities in which they previously lived. Some ex-offenders are monitored by the Board of Parole, or by halfway houses that offer social services and provide some education, job training, and reintegration programs to help ex-felons learn the social and work skills necessary to stay out of prison. In some cases, halfway houses function as a step toward addiction management, and in other cases they provide low-cost living for those who have no other options. Unfortunately, many ex-felons are returned to a life of poverty, which increases the risk of re-offending (Berk, Lenihan, & Rossi, 1980).
According to the Innocence Project, more than three hundred people have had Their convictions overturned through the use of DNA testing since 1989. Evidence gathered by the New York Times on ex-prisoners who were exonerated by DNA evidence, while not generalizable, suggests that exonerees face a unique set of problems upon release. There are not organized transition or support programs for those who have been declared innocent. Additionally, many exonerees convicted by states are not awarded compensation by the state for their time wrongly served, although there is now federal legislation that guarantees compensation for anyone exonerated of a federal conviction (Roberts & Stanton, 2007).
Programs that aid re-entry to society can begin in prisons themselves and carry over into the outside community, or they can focus only on the post-release transition. Most prisons have some sort of release curriculum, although these can range from brief interviews or orientations to more tailored programs dealing with employment, drug use, health issues, and life skills. Vocational training programs, work release, halfway houses, and drug treatment programs reduce recidivism. Educational programs and programs aimed at ex-offenders have more mixed results (Seiter & Kadela, 2003).
The Bureau of Justice Statistics has operationalized recidivism as "rearrest, reconviction, resentence to prison, and return to prison with or without a new sentence" (Langan & Levin, 2002, p. 1). As Maltz (2001) argues, the definition and measurement of recidivism has serious implications. Older measures captured rearrest rates within a year of a prisoner's release, which overestimated the effectiveness of the corrections system's goals of protection and rehabilitation.
In a study of prisoners released in 1994, Langan and Levin (2002) found that within three years, 67.5 percent had been rearrested, and slightly more than half were back in prison for either a new crime or a parole or probation violation. Those who had been in prison for homicide, rape, and driving under the influence had the lowest recidivism rates as did women (compared to men), Hispanics (compared to non-Hispanics), whites (compared to blacks), and younger prisoners. The highest rearrest rates were for prisoners convicted of robbery, burglary, and similar property crimes.
These high rates indicate that the current system fails in terms of rehabilitation. Maltz (2001) points out that recidivism data has contributed to a sense that "nothing works" by not paying enough attention to the type of crime most likely to be repeated and the demographics of offenders likely to reoffend.
The parole process—the conditional release of a prisoner before his or term is finished, under court supervision, with rigid behavioral requirements for continued freedom—varies from state to state. Generally, decisions to grant parole are made by a parole board set up by the state. Parole became more popular through the first half of the twentieth century, as corrections philosophy focused more on rehabilitation. When the parole rate hit its highest point in 1977, 72 percent of prisoners were granted parole. Seiter and Kadela (2003) argue that parole had many positive functions. Parole was part of a larger corrections structure aimed at reintegrating ex-prisoners back into society; as such, it worked as a "gatekeeper" to keep more dangerous prisoners behind bars while allowing others out only under supervision. Parole boards made sure that released prisoners had a residence lined up before release and connected parolees to social services and treatment options. Over the last twenty years, most states have moved away from the parole system and back to a system of set sentences, which means that many former inmates are released without any post-prison supervision or state-sponsored transition.
Parole is not always granted fairly. For example, Huebner and Bynum (2008) found that parole boards are more likely to grant earlier parole dates to white offenders than to black offenders, and Maltz (2001) pointed out that parole rates increased when prisons became overcrowded, suggesting that it is more tied to the needs of the prison system than to individual prisoners' readiness for release.
Once an individual is convicted of a felony his or her life changes in many ways. Time away from society can affect ones' social skills,...
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