Robert Smith didn’t have much of a chance growing up. Before going to prison, he went to jail, and before that, juvenile hall. Even before that, he spent much of his childhood under federal supervision, bouncing between the care of child protective services (CPS), various foster homes, and his drug- and alcohol-addled mother. Peddling drugs across the country, Rob was caught and sentenced to 12 years in Indiana but served only half his time under the state’s day-for-day credit for good behavior, a policy since rescinded. Immediately upon release, he started looking for jobs.
Almost as quickly, however, the drug dealer he’d sold for before being caught asked if he was ready to return to work. “That’s very tempting when you’re making minimum wage back in 2000,” Rob recalls. “I decided to leave Indiana because I didn’t want to risk getting caught up in those old people, places and things.” In short, staying out of prison wasn’t easy. Today, however, Rob works to make it a little easier as the San Diego director for the Center of Employment Opportunities (CEO), a national nonprofit whose primary goal is to reduce recidivism, the percentage of former prisoners who are rearrested for similar offenses.
- 8%—PERCENTAGE OF U.S. INMATES REARRESTED WITHIN 3 YEARS OF RELEASE
- PROPERTY OFFENDERS (BURGLARY, THEFT, ETC.)—THOSE MOST LIKELY TO BE REARRESTED
- 700%—PERCENTAGE SPIKE IN FEDERAL PRISON POPULATION SINCE 1980
- 32%—PERCENT OF U.S. GENERAL POPULATION GROWTH SINCE 1980
Roughly half of those incarcerated in the United States are nonviolent offenders and it doesn’t take a criminal justice expert to see this pattern of “growth” is unsustainable. The fact that property offenders are the most likely to be rearrested suggests that the trend is driven more by financial need than any sort of criminal disposition among convicts.
Decades of the War on Drugs and “tough on crime” rhetoric has created an American justice system that better serves the $43 billion-dollar-a-year prison industry than it does the prison population it’s supposed to reform. Some may argue the point of prison is to punish and not reform, but what good is punishment that only amplifies the problem? “We’re throwing people that don’t have the best social skills to begin with into social isolation,” Rob argues, “so you’re creating an underclass of citizens that just perpetuates itself without intervention.”
Research suggests that keeping former prisoners out of the criminal justice system requires a combination of family support, community assistance and economic opportunity that our present system often fails to provide. Even ex-cons committed to reentering society are often deterred by collateral consequences, which restrict access to employment as well as housing, voting and education. Thanks to the boom in prison populations and “tough on crime” policies, such collateral consequences have become more numerous and impactful in recent decades; today, 46,000 such restrictions affect more than 70 million Americans at the state and federal level.
While some restrictions serve a clear public safety function or relate to specific offenses, many if not most are overbroad, permanent punishments that can discourage rehabilitation and incentivize a return to criminal behavior. Finding employment soon after release, on the other hand, contributes to a 20 percent reduction in recidivism for nonviolent offenders. For this reason, CEO offers a pipeline to immediate employment for newly-released prisoners in 15 cities across the nation. In the past decade they’ve placed nearly 25,000 ex-cons into full-time employment through a four-step reentry model that includes life skills education, transitional employment on work crews, job placement with partnered businesses and post-placement services like crisis management and long-term planning.
The process isn’t always smooth. Rob often performs damage control with CEO’s employment partners when one of their placements goes awry by, for example, stealing a car under the employ of a tow truck company. Such anecdotes fly in the face of broader evidence, however, like one study by Johns Hopkins which showed their formerly incarcerated hires stayed on longer and advanced further than those without prior convictions. Unlike similar programs, CEO has submitted to randomized external evaluations to prove their success, with a reduction in recidivism of 16 to 22 percent among those served and a cost benefit of $3.85 for every dollar spent—mostly due to fewer criminal justice expenditures.
They’re far from the only force pushing for justice system reform. Rob points to the repeal of three-strikes laws, efforts to make the role of public defender an electable position and nationwide campaigns to “Ban the Box” on job applications inquiring about criminal status as signs we’re headed in the right direction. “It’s about public perception,” he maintains. “The data is really clear the current structure isn’t working, but we’ve done such a great job vilifying this population that the challenge now is getting people to shift that mindset.”