The Challenge

Approximately 2.3 million people are in custody in the United States’ criminal justice system.3 These individuals are in state and federal prisons, juvenile correctional facilities, local jails, and tribal jails. They are also in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and state psychiatric hospitals. Approximately 840,000 additional people are on parole while another 3.6 million are on probation.4 These data underscore the harsh reality that the United States incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other country in the world.

The Challenge

Approximately 2.3 million people are in custody in the United States’ criminal justice system.3 These individuals are in state and federal prisons, juvenile correctional facilities, local jails, and tribal jails. They are also in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and state psychiatric hospitals. Approximately 840,000 additional people are on parole while another 3.6 million are on probation.4 These data underscore the harsh reality that the United States incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other country in the world.

Reports and data recently released suggest that some criminal justice reform strategies are working, and overall rates of incarceration and recidivism have declined, 5,6 which is encouraging. But, approximately one in three Americans has a criminal record,7 and one in 55 adults is under some form of community supervision,8 which further illustrates that the scope of incarceration and reentry in the United States is complex and far-reaching.

For the large number of individuals subject to confinement in the United States, the period of physical custody is only the beginning of a lifetime of challenges. Once released from prison, formerly incarcerated individuals are met with a host of obstacles to successful reentry.

Though it should be noted that “reentry” and “recidivism” are defined and measured by a variety of methods that produce divergent statistics, a widely used estimate asserts that 630,000 individuals reenter society annually from prison,9 another 11 million cycle through jails 10 and another 4.5 million are under some form of court ordered supervision whose status mimics those that are formerly incarcerated.11 The large number of individuals returning each year represent a daunting challenge to our nation’s social and human services infrastructure.

Individuals who return to society from prison each year face myriad challenges, including potential rejection by friends and family; employers and landlords concerned about their criminal history; and difficulty accessing basic elements of life on the outside, such as securing valid identification and accessing public services. Stigma, structural racism, and misinformation often place critical support just out of reach, and guidelines issued by public agencies place formerly incarcerated individuals at the bottom of waiting lists for services that are already in short supply.

These concerns extend to the much larger population returning from jails, as well as to individuals who are not incarcerated but are subject to different forms of community supervision. More than 48,000 legal consequences of being convicted of a crime are identified in the National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction and are likely to inhibit an individual’s successful reintegration.

Planning effectively for reentry success is impossible without recognizing and accounting for the many confounding factors that contribute to individuals becoming involved with the criminal justice system. Among the societal elements that play a part in poor reentry outcomes are poverty, a lack of investment in education, insufficient health resources, mental health and substance abuse disorders, and systemic racism that has led to higher rates of incarceration for ethnic and racial minorities.

In reference to the confluence of inputs that lead to negative outcomes, University of Texas, Austin, sociology professor William R. Kelly describes a “nearly perfect recidivism machine” in which...

“the decision to not properly fund public health, schools and social welfare agencies has created problems that by default are managed by the criminal justice system. Criminal justice reform means much more than merely reforming the criminal justice system. It requires massive changes to and investment in a variety of collateral institutions.”12

Reentry Ready stakeholders assert firmly that multiple overlapping systems must collaborate to facilitate successful reentry.

Consequences of the high rates of incarceration and the challenges associated with reentry are not limited to those who are directly subject to the system. Society must bear the high fiscal and social costs of the inflated rates of incarceration and recidivism. Though the annual cost of corrections is often cited as $80 billion13, a 2016 Washington University of St. Louis study asserts that this figure drastically underestimates the actual cost of incarceration. According to that study, incarceration’s aggregate cost is close to $1 trillion annually, fueled by related social costs that amount to nearly 6 percent of the gross domestic product of the United States.14

Among these social costs are communities grappling with over-criminalization, poverty, and negative social effects on families. Additionally, unfilled jobs and overlooked talent in the workforce contribute to negative societal outcomes. Notwithstanding differing opinions about the purpose of incarceration, widespread agreement supports the need to reduce criminal justice spending while ensuring public safety. Although our nation is doing important work concerning the high rates of incarceration, we need to improve significantly our response to the needs of reentering individuals. We need to ensure that resources such as evidence-based interventions and adequate funding are available to meet existing and emergent needs.

The lack of public funding for key systems is compounded by the concentration of formerly incarcerated individuals in urban neighborhoods and rural communities to which a disproportionate number return. Many communities and neighborhoods have been hard hit by deindustrialization and the disappearance of middle-class jobs; the shortage of safe, affordable, and habitable housing; and the erosion of broader social networks and family connections. Moreover, inadequate funding of and investment in physical and behavioral treatment capacity in these localities often means that jails and prisons become default providers of necessary services, such as preventive health services and medication-assisted treatment (MAT).

The challenges of reentry are further inflated for those in a racial, ethnic, or economically marginalized group that has borne the weight of many decades of racial and economic discrimination. For instance, over 35 percent of those in the U.S. prison population are black.15 Additionally, almost 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women who are booked into jails each year have a mental health condition.16 In the most disadvantaged neighborhoods and communities, the challenges of integrating formerly incarcerated individuals are overwhelming. Given the varying environments to which people return, a nuanced approach is necessary to ensure effective reentry across diverse populations.

Along with underfunding and the concentration of challenges in disadvantaged neighborhoods and communities, the Reentry Ready Project dialogue revealed several challenges to collaboration and integration of corrections, education, employment, health, and housing systems at the local, state and national levels. 

The challenges mentioned here are not isolated to urban communities. Rural communities are also challenged by high rates of unemployment, inadequate health care services, and limited social services support. Furthermore, many rural communities are experiencing the growing opioid crisis, which is stressing their already limited resources.

Among these social costs are communities grappling with over-criminalization, poverty, and negative social effects on families. Additionally, unfilled jobs and overlooked talent in the workforce contribute to negative societal outcomes. Notwithstanding differing opinions about the purpose of incarceration, widespread agreement supports the need to reduce criminal justice spending while ensuring public safety. Although our nation is doing important work concerning the high rates of incarceration, we need to improve significantly our response to the needs of reentering individuals. We need to ensure that resources such as evidence-based interventions and adequate funding are available to meet existing and emergent needs.

The lack of public funding for key systems is compounded by the concentration of formerly incarcerated individuals in urban neighborhoods and rural communities to which a disproportionate number return. Many communities and neighborhoods have been hard hit by deindustrialization and the disappearance of middle-class jobs; the shortage of safe, affordable, and habitable housing; and the erosion of broader social networks and family connections. Moreover, inadequate funding of and investment in physical and behavioral treatment capacity in these localities often means that jails and prisons become default providers of necessary services, such as preventive health services and medication-assisted treatment (MAT).

The challenges of reentry are further inflated for those in a racial, ethnic, or economically marginalized group that has borne the weight of many decades of racial and economic discrimination. For instance, over 35 percent of those in the U.S. prison population are black.15 Additionally, almost 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women who are booked into jails each year have a mental health condition.16 In the most disadvantaged neighborhoods and communities, the challenges of integrating formerly incarcerated individuals are overwhelming. Given the varying environments to which people return, a nuanced approach is necessary to ensure effective reentry across diverse populations.

Along with underfunding and the concentration of challenges in disadvantaged neighborhoods and communities, the Reentry Ready Project dialogue revealed several challenges to collaboration and integration of corrections, education, employment, health, and housing systems at the local, state and national levels. 

The challenges mentioned here are not isolated to urban communities. Rural communities are also challenged by high rates of unemployment, inadequate health care services, and limited social services support. Furthermore, many rural communities are experiencing the growing opioid crisis, which is stressing their already limited resources.

Silos: Incarceration and reentry system agencies have different operational and cultural characteristics that often conflict. Medical care for incarcerated individuals offers an example. Corrections systems operate with entirely separate health providers and funding streams than community-based healthcare systems, making it difficult for returning individuals to reestablish eligibility for benefits and transition to community-based health care. Determining how to transcend the obvious and perceived walls between incarceration and reentry systems and to promote cross-system connections is a challenge. However, well-designed cross-system collaboration improves outcomes for currently and formerly incarcerated individuals wherever the systems intersect.

Benefit eligibility: Public and private funding, and the policies that govern incarceration and reentry systems, include strict rules that hinder cross-system collaboration. For example, rules that limit eligibility for federal student aid for individuals with certain types of convictions, and the misinterpretation of rules regarding felons’ ability to access public housing, hinder the ability of currently and formerly incarcerated individuals to access services and supports that are critical to reentry success. Additionally, individuals are usually not covered by Medicaid while they are incarcerated,17 and eligibility is often not re-established for individuals prior to release.18 This discontinuity of benefits leads to discontinuities of care and can affect short- and long-term health status of formerly incarcerated individuals.

Accountability: Stakeholders note that each system is accountable for a different set of outcomes and to different constituencies. The primary metrics for corrections systems focus on safety and security, rather than on successful preparation for reentry. Technical training programs accountable for placing students into jobs are discouraged from accepting “high risk” reentering individuals who face stigma in the job market. The lack of a common set of outcomes and shared accountability makes systems less willing to invest their limited resources in cross-system collaboration. In contrast, developing shared metrics and shared accountability for achieving them can lead to implementation of mutually beneficial actions that improve reentry outcomes.

Leadership: Stakeholders noted that public officials, as well as business and community leaders, often see the challenges of reentry as primarily a problem for corrections and law enforcement agencies, rather than the concern of the full range of state and local public agencies and private partners that could promote success. This relates to the work of leaders at all levels of government. Even when leaders do commit to work together across systems, maintaining momentum and sustaining commitments over time is problematic, given leadership changes, dynamic political pressure, and shifting public will. Election cycles bring changes of leadership in various appointed and elected positions, making it difficult to build the relationships necessary for deep collaboration. Actors and systems concerned with supporting incarcerated and reentering individuals must work to maintain the momentum of collaboration despite constantly changing leadership and decision-making processes.

Though these challenges are daunting, they are not insurmountable. Ample evidence from around the country demonstrates that aligning reentry goals with resources and accountability of key systems does increase reentry success for formerly incarcerated individuals.19 Each success is accompanied with public cost savings, reduced public safety risks, stronger families, and more cohesive communities.

Convergence Center for Policy Resolution is a national non-profit based in Washington, DC that convenes individuals and organizations with divergent views to build trust, identify solutions, and form alliances for action on issues of critical public concern. Reports and recommendations issued under our auspices reflect the views of the individuals and organizations who put the ideas forward. Convergence itself remains neutral and does not endorse or take positions on recommendations of its stakeholders.

Convergence Center for Policy Resolution
1133 19th Street NW, Suite 410
Washington, DC | 20036
202 830 2310

www.convergencepolicy.org

Convergence Center for Policy Resolution is a national non-profit based in Washington, DC that convenes individuals and organizations with divergent views to build trust, identify solutions, and form alliances for action on issues of critical public concern. Reports and recommendations issued under our auspices reflect the views of the individuals and organizations who put the ideas forward. Convergence itself remains neutral and does not endorse or take positions on recommendations of its stakeholders.

Convergence Center for Policy Resolution
1133 19th Street NW, Suite 410
Washington, DC | 20036
202 830 2310

www.convergencepolicy.org