Across the country, more than 600,000 people are expected to return from federal and state prisons to their communities this year. The most recent U.S. Department of Justice statistics show that in 2005, there were about 63,000 New Yorkers serving a prison sentence of more than a year. And there are more than 172,000 Empire State residents on probation or parole. But of those released from prison, roughly two-thirds are expected to land back behind bars within three years.

Experts are urgently trying to figure out how best to reincorporate these people into society. They want to foster public debate on the issues of re-entry, taking a hard look at the roles played by the different participating institutions and their methods, and at proposed changes in legislation.

Work has traditionally been seen both as the main method – and the desired result – of rehabilitation. At the same time, difficulty finding employment is one of the main obstacles faced by ex-offenders. Accordingly, a lot of emphasis has been put on supporting nonprofit organizations that help these people re-enter society through work. New York organizations like the Center for Employment Opportunities, the Osborne Association, Fortune Society and STRIVE serve as intermediaries between potential employers and those with criminal records. Churches are also beginning to get involved. Some of these re-entry organizations have recently been undergoing evaluations to find out whether their tactics really work. Others, however, proceed – often with public funding – with little evidence supporting their approach.

In five individual interviews, experts discussed ideas about rehabilitation and the difficulties ex-offenders face in today’s labor market. What follows is a virtual interdisciplinary dialogue composed of selections from the interviews.

The participants are:

Devah Pager, assistant professor of sociology and faculty associate of the Office of Population Research at Princeton University: Pager conducted two field experiments studying discrimination against minorities and ex-offenders in the low-wage labor market. Her New York City study concludes that employers called back white felons in 17% of all cases, while blacks with no prison record applying for the same jobs received calls back in 13% of all cases.

Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of “But They All Come Back”: Travis, who established the term “re-entry,” has launched several initiatives focusing on prisoner re-entry, crime trends and community policing. Travis has also served as a senior fellow affiliated with the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, and directed the National Institute of Justice.

Edward Latessa, head of the Division of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati and co-author of “Corrections in the Community” and “Corrections in America”: Latessa researches and evaluates correctional programs in the U.S. His written work focuses on what works and what doesn’t in rehabilitating offenders.

Glenn Martin, director of the National H.I.R.E. Network, which was established by the Legal Action Center here in New York City: H.I.R.E. stands for Helping Individuals with criminal records Re-enter through Employment. Martin spent six years in prison and is now a public policy advocate. His organization focuses on eliminating the obstacles faced by job-seekers with criminal records.

Ronald Mincy, professor of social policy and social work practice at Columbia University, and editor and co-author of “Black Males Left Behind”: Mincy’s professional interests include family support systems, income security policy, the U.S. labor market and urban poverty. Among other things, his work explores the reasons why black males are, in his words, “historically the hardest to reach population.”

The situation

How did you become interested in your research topic of discrimination against minorities?

Devah Pager: I got into this out of interest in racial inequality. There are very few people studying the prison system apart from criminologists. The interest was on why do people go to prison, and not what happens to them when they come back out. The statistics are staggering. At any time, 12 percent of young black men are in prison. Over their lifetime, about one in three black men will spend some time in prison. For black high school dropouts, about 60% will spend time in prison at some point in their lifetime. It is becoming an increasingly common and expected experience in the life course of the most disadvantaged groups in society. In the course of this massive expansion in the criminal justice system there wasn’t a lot of thought of how this experience would affect people coming out.

For people who committed crimes, there is justice involved in posing punishment, but I do think that the state has a responsibility to use its institutions in ways that promote the public good. And I think there are ways in which the unintended consequences of this massive expansion in the criminal justice system has really serious consequences, not only for all of the individuals who themselves are processed through the system and for their families and communities, but also for our public safety more generally. We are creating this large criminal underclass of people who have a very difficult time finding jobs [and] finding places to live, and those are exactly the kind of factors that lead people back into crime.

You call young black males “historically the hardest to reach population.” Can you define what you mean by reach?

Ronald Mincy: [I mean] in terms of the disconnect with the mainstream labor market. It used to be that the challenges had to do with education and the like. But despite increases in educational attainment in African-American males in the long term, we still have unemployment rates among high school dropouts that hover around 75 percent, and for those with some college around 50 percent. And then there are all these other disconnects associated with their criminal justice experience. The facts that some of them are ex-offenders and [that] there are still high rates of substance abuse among African-American men ... make it very difficult for them to find jobs in an economy which is no longer rewarding brawn, but the ability to work with others.

Some of that has to do with [the fact] that the men are much more difficult to incorporate and accommodate into the work place. I think society in general has this very negative [picture] – and not without good reason – of African-American men. African-American women aren’t that threatening in a lot of ways. African-American men, on the other hand, face lots of employment discrimination.