Prison Time Should Be Well Spent

December 7, 2016

Baltimore Sun–December 7, 2016–
Walking out of the prison gates in the Old Line State is a daunting journey for the formerly incarcerated. Fully 40 percent of Maryland’s former prisoners will be back behind bars in three years, re-convicted of a new offense.Studies show that the first few days, weeks and months are the most difficult and dangerous for ex-offenders to stay out of state custody. With few resources, limited education and severe barriers to re-entry, many return to the old habits and lifestyles that sent them to prison in the first place. For the nearly 10,000 returned citizens who go home to Baltimore City every year, that revolving prison door contributes to the social and legal stigma that impairs successful re-entry for those convicted of crimes.

The primary challenge for most returned citizens is work. While it may be difficult for them to find work, those behind bars are not unemployable. Many learn useful skills and provide necessary services and goods to state agencies through prison-to-work programs. But too many legal and social hurdles exist for the formerly incarcerated looking for gainful, legitimate employment — especially in Maryland. Under state law, most ex-felons are barred from acquiring certain occupational licenses and are legally discriminated against on many job applications.

Despite the progress made by the state in reforming the criminal justice system’s “front-end” (sentencing and judicial practices), the “back-end” or re-entry is just as — if not more — important and must start before prisoners exit those gates to ensure the incarcerated are ready to thrive. Policymakers, nonprofits and public-private partnerships can break the cycle of incarceration while growing our economy, and making our streets safer and our communities stronger by empowering and supporting the formerly incarcerated both before and after their release.

That means better and high-quality education and therapeutic programs should be made available to prepare prisoners both personally and professionally for release and the workforce.

Legal barriers that impede work and affordable housing should be knocked down, and nonprofit and government programs that assist returning citizens must be better integrated to ensure successful re-entry.

Although the social and legal stigma attached to convicts will not disappear overnight, promising programs and role model returned citizens can help to chip away at it.

One successful program, the Prisoner Entrepreneurship Program in Texas, teaches prisoners both life and business skills in the hopes that they will become entrepreneurs upon release. It also provides wrap-around services and continuing education after release.

In Georgia, vocational programming and reforms have given thousands of prisoners a second chance to provide for themselves and their families. The program’s success is such that of 150 trained welders, every single one had a job offer by the time they left prison.

In Jessup, Md., several colleges (including University of Baltimore, Goucher College and Anne Arundel Community College) are providing inmates at three different prisons with a college education in the hopes that they will be prepared for careers upon returning to their communities.

Baltimore-based Living Classrooms Foundation helps returned citizens find work and offers vocational education as well. There are several other models and programs in the Baltimore community that are working to ensure returned citizens become productive and law-abiding members of society. Still, there is much more work to do.

State and community leaders should invest in returned citizens to ensure their journey home is a successful one. It is fundamentally a matter of public safety, economic growth and forging strong families and communities.

Any discussion of criminal justice reform must include returned citizens as well. For taxpayers, victims of crime and the incarcerated themselves, the question should be: Was prison time well spent, or was it merely time (and money) wasted?

If we can improve the chances of success for the formerly incarcerated, we will all be richer, safer and stronger as a state and community. To that end, the American Enterprise Institute and the University of Baltimore’s will co-host an all-day conference on pathways to re-entry at UB’s Learning Commons on Thursday. It is open to the public.

Op-ed written by Gerard Robinson, Roger Hartley, Andrea Cantora