Even with a new skill set, good behavior served and any and all attempts to keep up with technology, returning home after years of incarceration can be woefully difficult for former inmates and even harder for the communities they return to.
In the past year, we have seen bipartisan support for prison reform emerge from Congress. This is certainly encouraging as indicators show that the nation is getting serious about prison reform, but there remains a critical dimension missing from the mass incarceration conversation happening today— how do we reinvest in communities in a way that will better help people succeed once they come home?
Reducing mandatory sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders is currently front and center in the national debate on prison reform. Still, there is little discussion among the nation’s policymakers and thought leaders when it comes to what we are doing to ensure successful reentry for the formerly incarcerated.
We know that this country’s long history of racial injustices has led to communities of color being overwhelmingly targeted by the criminal justice system and disproportionately suffering from poverty. To effectively end this cycle of criminalization, incarceration and poverty, we need a serious plan to reinvest in mental health care, housing, food and employment services in the communities most at risk.
More than 20 community organizations, including the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, and Research Action Design, commissioned the “Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families,” report to illuminate how financial and other barriers faced by the formerly incarcerated can dramatically impact not only their future, but the lives of their families as well.
For example, average families are overwhelmingly the primary resource providing housing, food and employment opportunities for their previously incarcerated loved ones. Yet, among those surveyed in the “Who Pays?” report, 48 percent of all families and 58 percent of those living under the poverty line were unable to afford the rarely discussed fees where numerous fines and debt only deepen their economic despair. The average debt incurred for court-related fines and fees alone for those facing incarceration was $13,607.
It’s no surprise then that nearly two out of three families (65 percent) with an incarcerated family member were unable to pay for their family’s basic needs, with nearly half unable to afford enough food or pay for their housing. As studies have shown, there is a strong connection between poverty and criminal behavior, bot making it nearly impossible to set formerly incarcerated people up for success.
Aside from economic devastation, other unmitigated factors prove equally harmful to the reentry process. The stigma, isolation and trauma of incarceration have a sizable and terrible impact on the families and communities of the formerly incarcerated. The “Who Pays?” report concluded that 50 percent of all formerly incarcerated persons and 50 percent of the family members surveyed having suffered negative health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, hopelessness, depression, anxiety and nightmares.
Clearly, a genuine investment in communities is critical to safeguarding the reentry process and ensuring a positive outcome. Still, there remains a dearth of institutional support for providing therapy for the formerly incarcerated and their families to achieve emotional and financial stability during and after incarceration.
It is imperative that policymakers look as closely into the realities of life after prison as they do at life in prison. There are glimmers of hope. In 2014, Californians passed Proposition 47, which required that certain low-level felonies be charged as misdemeanors. The money saved will be reinvested in school programs and mental health and drug abuse treatment. In other cities, states and even the federal government (via executive order), we are seeing passage of “ban the box” legislation, making it illegal for employers to ask about a prospective employee’s prior criminal record on job applications so formerly incarcerated people have a fair shot at getting hired.
As we work to reduce mass incarceration, we must not neglect to address the barriers the formerly incarcerated will ultimately have to face. Once they leave the iron gates and stone walls of prison, they should not have to begin a new sentence on the outside. Without ample opportunities and reinvestment in poor and struggling communities, life after prison easily becomes nothing more than extension of a sentence.
Zachary Norris is executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and 2015 Opportunity Agenda Criminal Justice Fellow.