By TINA ROSENBERG
looks at solutions to social problems and why they work.
What works and what doesn’t work to solve a social problem is often no mystery. The mystery is why we so often persist in doing what doesn’t work. The topic of Tuesday’s column — prisoner re-entry into the community — offers myriad examples. One is the practice of dropping people getting out of jail or prison right back into the neighborhoods where they got in trouble in the first place. Intuition tells us that this is a bad idea: the old street corners and the old friends seem like a recipe for the old troubles. Research on this idea is rare and hard to do — it’s tough to get around the problem that the person who chooses not to go home may have other qualities that make him successful.
A study published in 2009 in the American Sociological Review by David Kirk, a sociologist at the University of Texas, confirms our intuition. Kirk took advantage of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, which prevented some New Orleans residents getting out of prison from going back to their old neighborhoods. For the prisoners, this consequence of Katrina turned out to carry a hidden blessing. Those who couldn’t go home did significantly better at avoiding future incarceration than those who lived in neighborhoods where they could and did go home.
Prisoners are often aware of the temptations they will face upon resuming their old lives. Nearly half of the prisoners in Illinois surveyed by the Urban Institute said they didn’t want to go back home upon release. But states not only encourage people to go home again, some of them demand it — in most states, prisoners released on parole are legally required to go back to their county of last residence.
This rule is one of many protocols for dealing with former prisoners that seem to make little sense. Many prisoners are sent home to arrive in the middle of the night with only a few dollars in their pockets. Virtually no one in prison in the United States today can get methadone maintenance therapy, the gold standard drug treatment. Prisoners are no longer eligible for the grants that used to make getting a college education in prison possible. This system is designed to fail. And it does.
It is not failing quietly. On the positive side, there are programs all over the country that recognize that helping prisoners remake their lives is both humane and cost-effective. On Tuesday I wrote about two comprehensive ones: the Fortune Society’s Castle and Delancey Street. Both provide housing, a new peer group, job training, classes, drug treatment — one-stop shopping for recently released prisoners.
Many readers responded, either in comments or e-mails, with information on other programs that offer services in prison or to recently released prisoners or ex-gang members.
Nancy K from St. Louis wrote in about Prison Performing Arts in Missouri, which works with incarcerated adults and children to put on a play over the course of a year. Carole Farnham from Richmond, Va., wrote about Boaz and Ruth. This Richmond organization provides job training and other services to local former prisoners who work on projects to revitalize a blighted neighborhood.
Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles employs former gang members in a restaurant or companies that bake bread or do silk screening. The money raised pays for services such as mental health counseling, 12-step meetings and gang tattoo removal. Dismas Houses in several states and overseas provide homes where former prisoners live alongside college students. There are also the Safer Foundation in Illinois and Iowa, Pioneer Human Services in Washington state, the Center for Employment Opportunities in New York and perhaps a handful of other programs.
Several of the writers acknowledged that these programs are always broke (at Boaz and Ruth, the staff works part of the time for free), which is probably typical. It is a shame — all of these ideas likely deserve fat budgets and widespread adaptation. But as with the Castle and Delancey Street, they don’t get them. No doubt these programs save the American public a lot of money (incarceration is expensive) and the few thousand people these programs work with are mightily helped. But hundreds of thousands more former prisoners arrive home on the bus at nighttime alone.
How can this be, when we profess to be concerned about crime? As taxpayers, we don’t want to pay the costs of incarceration. As citizens, we want to be able to live free of crime. Why, then, the persistence of obvious folly?
The underlying reason is that crime has normally been a highly emotional issue for voters. Politicians may understand that certain strategies do not leave us safer, yet they do not try to change them for fear of being tarred as soft on criminals. When crime rates are high and crime is a potent electoral issue, the pressure encourages public officials to appear tough on crime at all costs. When crime rates are low and voters might be more receptive to more effective approaches, the issue has usually vanished from public attention.
A related reason is that advocates of new strategies rarely have the research that would allow them to make their case. Especially with an issue like crime, it is important to be able to offer proof to counter the emotion. But many aspects of why people commit crimes and how to stop them have been little studied. “Research is very expensive to do,” said Peggy McGarry, the director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections for the New York-based Vera Institute. “You have to create a comparison group out of the files of a public agency, create a database, do interviews. It is getting harder and harder to persuade private funders to spend money on research because the human need is just so great. And they are not convinced that legislatures and government offices are going to do anything with the results of it anyway. Why spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to evaluate the Castle if you are not convinced that New York State will try to replicate it?”
The good news is that we may have reached a turning point, a chance at last to see effective anti-crime policies edge out ineffective ones. One reason is the record number of people being released from prison. This has made prisoner re-entry a hot topic in the field of corrections (if still invisible to the rest of the world). The politics, too, have changed. The crime rate throughout the United States has dropped, which means that voters are less panicked about crime and less singleminded about harsh measures.
The public isn’t thinking about crime — but state officials are. States are in budget crisis. Many states are looking for ways to let nonviolent prisoners out — and they can’t afford to see them come back again. California’s three strikes law — your third felony conviction, even if for something minor, brings a 25-year-to-life prison term — is costing the state $500 million a year, according to the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.