Supervision is a Major Barrier to Reentry

I’m speaking today at the RAND Corporation on “Career Prospects for People with Criminal Records.” While I’m there, I’ll speak about our work at the Prisons and Justice Initiative (founded by Marc Howard) at Georgetown University, focusing on the education work: the Scholars Program, the Paralegal Program, and the Pivot Program.

In addition to discussing our programs and bragging about our graduates, I plan to make two points:

  1. Reentry is a difficult process. The formula we often use is “housing + employment = successful reentry.” For this reason, we generally find that the most successful pre-release strategies are mediation with family members (to guarantee housing upon release), and education (to guarantee employment.) BUT…
  2. Reentry is needlessly complicated by the court supervision processes of parole (and sometimes probation.)

When we say that the three year recidivism rate is 68% (which is what you’ll find when you look at Bureau of Justice Statistics) we’re saying that 68% of formerly incarcerated folks are rearrested for something–but not necessarily for a crime, and certainly not for a crime that has a victim. More often then not, recidivism is the result of technical parole violations. These are activities that are not themselves illegal, but violate the terms of a person’s parole and lead to a short (or sometimes long) stint of re-incarceration.

Parole can thus interfere with the building blocks of reentry: housing and employment. What I’ve observed is that the restrictions of parole around housing can leave DC residents housing-insecure or homeless–while the meddlesome nature of drug tests and CSO visits can lead many employed returning citizens to lose their jobs because they must continually leave work to race across the city for a timed urine sample, or stay home unexpectedly for a home inspection.

Parole officers are not always caring and concerned mentors, either. It’s rare–I’m sure!–but sometimes they can be rude and disrespectful, not only to the person on parole but to their employers and family members as well. All of this puts unneeded stress on frayed bonds that returning citizens need to take advantage of their second chance. It is something that potential employers have to factor in to their decision to hire returning citizens.

Some supervision agencies are working to provide alternative hours for employed returning citizens, and to punish disrespectful attitudes from officers. However, the ongoing stigma and skepticism directed at returning citizens means that enforcing these provisions remains difficult.

Ideally, we’d treat supervision in much the same way that we treat other factors that hamper full commitment to an employer: parents face similar pressures from school cancellations and illnesses, for instance, but to at least some extent we socially value these conflicts and thus work to manage the difficulties parents face–again, not adequately but to some extent. We can and should do the same for returning citizens who face difficulties from supervision and monitoring. But we do not accommodate them!

This failure to accommodate returning citizens is exacerbated when an individual applicant or employee has multiple intersecting strains: a family to care for, a parole officer to negotiate with, a chance of being re-incarcerated. Employers struggle to manage these risks, and so they resist hiring returning citizens–even when they are missing out on talented workers.

It may well be that court supervision serves important public safety goals. However, it is long past time for supervision itself to be assessed for its efficacy and evaluated according to its benefits and its economic (and human!) costs. We already know that supervision is creating serious obstacles to measuring the efficacy of every other reentry program, since it undermines the efficacy of measures of recidivism by aggregating technical parole violations with reoffenses. If the true measure of “corrections” is “desistance” then we will struggle to measure that against the backdrop of drug and alcohol screenings, GPS monitoring, and association violations.

It’s worth repeating this fact: the US incarcerates 2.3 million people, ten times the global average. What’s more, almost 70 million of our fellow citizens have a criminal record. It’s almost certainly not a good idea to discriminate against returning citizens, because it’s a signal that no other country provides, meaning most returning citizens would be employed if only they had had the good luck to be born outside of the US.

Second Opinions