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.

What triggers a fear of African-American men in employers? And what can be done to eliminate this fear?

Devah Pager: I moved away from the idea that this is a deep-seated prejudice or racism. Especially in New York, there are open-minded groups of employers. But I think there is still a very strong association between the characteristics of young black men and other negative characteristics. So employers view black men as being less responsive to authority, less hardworking, having bad attitudes, being dressed poorly. There are assumptions about these different kinds of applicants, and even if they haven’t experienced that and even if the individual applicant doesn’t seem to present these qualities, these stereotypes are influencing employers.

But employers are not irrational or crazy to not hire ex-offenders. People who have committed crimes in the past are more likely to commit crimes in the future. There is some real basis for concern there. I don’t want my research to suggest that I’m blaming employers for these poor employment prospects of ex-offenders. I think employers have been on the front lines of our re-entry policies without getting any kind of support from the government, or any kind of protection for the risk that they face when hiring ex-offenders.

A more influential kind of public policy would be to not leave these processes to simple market forces, but to provide better protection and support to employers who are willing to hire ex-offenders.

A multi-sector approach to rehabilitation

You said that rehabilitation is “back in vogue these days.” What is the difference between the approaches today and during other periods of reform?

Jeremy Travis: What’s different today is that the work is seen as multi-sector work. It has to involve the criminal justice system as well as the public health officials, the police, community organizations and child welfare. There is a better understanding now than ever before that the challenges of prisoners coming home require a consortium of partners to make it successful. It is not just a criminal justice challenge.

Secondly, what’s different today than 30 years ago is that we are operating on a very different scale. The number of people coming home and the rate of incarceration far exceed anything we could have imagined in 1972 when we started increasing our prison population. So the urgency of doing something about this phenomenon is quite different today than 30 years ago.

Finally, there is an understanding that it involves all levels of government. There is a federal leadership role and there is a state role, but most importantly it is a local responsibility for improving outcomes. If you want to have strong communities you have to address the issue of re-entry on all levels of government.

When you look at re-entry policies and programs over the last ten or twenty years, what has changed?

Edward Latessa: We are starting to see a little bit better coordination between institutions and the community. We are also seeing a little bit more involvement with the family-type programs, but that’s fairly recent. Prior to that, there hasn’t been a lot of attention given to re-entry. If you ask about the last 10 or 20 years, many states have done away with parole, so many offenders come out without that safety net and that supervision. New York is not one of them. New York does retain parole in its original form.

Have any of your ideas changed in the past few years?

Jeremy Travis: One area where I certainly evolved in my thinking is on the role of faith communities and faith institutions in this work. I have come to the view that they are very valuable members in this coalition. First, because in the communities of concentrated incarceration and re-entry, churches are very strong local institutions. Community-level organizing is very important for success. These institutions are critical members of that community.

Secondly, the churches, if organized properly, can provide a continuity from work inside prison to work outside prison. So prison ministry can relate to community ministry.

And third, the language, the rhetoric of people of faith, is very beneficial to our understanding of the phenomenon. So people of faith, those of the Christian background, talk about redemption, they talk about forgiveness, they talk about the story of the prodigal son. Those philosophical constructs and that language are a very important contribution to our national conversation of what to do with people who violate the law.

The role of work

What role does work play in the current rehabilitation effort, and what is the incentive for ex-offenders to stick to minimum-wage jobs?

Glenn Martin: Just a job is not going to do it. It has to be things like teaching people the importance of patience and investment. My first job, when I came out of prison, was a $16,000-a-year job. When I used to commit crimes I could make $16,000 a day. So what’s the incentive to not do that? You know what it was? For me, I learned it from the cause of education. You take your time to do something, then eventually there are rewards down the line. Those things taught me patience and the fact that patience pays off. We need to build on that. We need to show people that patience pays off. So this has to be built in.

Any services you offer have to be very holistic. It can’t just be an apartment, it can’t just be a job. Those things don’t change people’s minds. They are tools, but they don’t transform people. We need to do that a little bit better. Prison teaches a bad lesson. You go to prison and you take all those programs, then you go to parole board and they deny you. There is no correlation between the programs you are taking and the parole board’s decision. ...Prison just reinforces that there is no reward to doing the right thing.

You and many others say that work can reduce incentives that lead to crime. What role do you think the type of work plays?

Devah Pager: It plays an important role. People see criminal activity and steady work as trade-offs. If an individual feels that they are not going to be able to support themselves or their family [and that] they are not going to be able to have any opportunities for upward mobility, the incentives to stick with a low-wage crappy job are much lower. And in cases where there are opportunities in the legitimate or informal labor market, those may seem like worthwhile trade-offs. The kind of job is important. People need to feel a sense of self-respect and opportunity.

What do you think of the idea of complementing job placement programs with educational opportunities?

Ronald Mincy: This is an important idea, but the notion of education has been shown to be ineffective. We had a couple of decades in welfare reform of looking at employment interning programs which put people in the classroom first and then send them off for a job. People then tend to go from one educational setting to another and have very low rates of ever finding a job and then working in it. They also have been shown not to be cost-effective.

And one of the things that you want to be careful about is: Do you spend serious money on vocational education for someone who is not able to get up in the morning? ... Who is ready for some subsequent investment so they can get to the next level? And for those who are not ready, what do we have to do to make them ready?

Do you have any advice for people with criminal records who are looking for jobs?

Glenn Martin: Number one – tell the truth when you are looking for a job. Be very clear and concise about what your conviction is. A job application is a legal document. You can be prosecuted for lying on it. If you do get the job, maybe five years out they pick you for a promotion, but they do a background check and then you lose the job. …Eventually the employer is going to know if you have a conviction.

Number two – education. Education is one of the things you can do that really equalizes your chances. …It shows employers that you are committed to changing. It helps to change the personal stigma. And also, it changes a person’s mind. Education is transforming to people.

The other thing is, people have to consider where they are going to settle down after prison, because some states have protections and others don’t. New York is one of the only states that has protection [meaning the NYS anti-discrimination law, Article 23-a].
And then training, and getting an idea what’s available in the market. When there is high demand in the market, people with criminal records tend to get placement a lot easier. ...A person doesn’t have a lot of control over the economy, but you do have control over taking a look at which industries are growing quickly and maybe training for a job in that industry, if there is no bar. Nursing, for example, is growing really fast, but doesn’t work for our population because they are barred.

Do boot camps lower barriers?

One popular reintegration approach is the boot camp. Organizations like STRIVE, a job readiness and placement program for mothers on welfare, recovering addicts and ex-offenders in East Harlem, adhere to the notion that people need to be broken down to be built back up again. STRIVE’s boot camp makes the students pay, literally, for the mistakes they make.

What do you think of STRIVE’s approach?

Glenn Martin: The problem I have with their model, personally, is that it gives too much attention to the individual and not enough attention to the system. But different strokes for different folks. Some people need that model to help get them motivated.

The current administration likes this approach for a lot of reasons. Because it’s the individual’s fault: ‘You are who you are!’ … It comes from a deficit model rather than from an asset model. It’s like: ‘Here is what you did wrong.’ That can break a person’s spirit. That may work for some people.

I did time in prison. If I’d gone through this sort of program – I mean, you come out of prison and you are already questioning your self-efficacy, whether you are supposed to be committing crime and whether other stuff is just not for you. And then you go to a program like this and they just tell you all about the all things you’ve done wrong. People come out of prison sitting on a fence, trying to decide to do the right thing or the wrong thing or what should they do with their lives. And this model may actually push a person in the wrong direction. But having said that, it takes a lot of different models to help people, and some people will benefit from this model.

What do you think of boot camp programs?

Edward Latessa: There is no evidence that those programs work. In fact, most of those programs make people worse. The whole notion of breaking down and rebuilding is – what those offenders are learning is to be more aggressive. If you take low-, medium- and high-risk offenders and you bond them into a group, what do you get? You get a gang. The notion that people are offenders because they don’t have discipline, that’s just a myth. A lot of people aren’t disciplined and they are not criminals. Evidence across the board indicates that there is very little effect from those kinds of programs. Those programs are very misguided. At lot of them are based on this rigid model of transformation. Like, you do it their way or no way. They only count their successes. They don’t count all the people that fail and that they throw out of the program. These kinds of programs claim great success rates but the reality is that anybody who goes in there and does empirical studies finds that there is no evidence.

How did you feel watching STRIVE’s attitudinal training?

Ronald Mincy: I felt it was an appropriate tough love. I thought it was good at breaking people down and I thought there are aspects that are cruel, but also people meet themselves, meet their vulnerabilities. After that experience there is a certain healing, but there is also a certain willingness to take bad experiences and make their way out of it. Workers often have to do that. ...The question is: Does this treatment prepare them for meeting the challenges and disappointments that you get in the real workplace? Does it go overboard in a way? They are unlikely to get treated with the same level of cruelty in the workplace that they have experienced at STRIVE, but having gone through that, they may well be better prepared to deal with the disappointments of human interaction in the workplace than they would be otherwise.

What do you think of re-entry organizations that employ the boot camp approach?

Jeremy Travis: Boot camps have been proven time and time again to be ineffective in reducing crime. There is a risk of them being demeaning and dehumanizing. And if you look at the research, they don’t achieve their stated result, which is to reduce crime.

Improving the providers

According to your research, what are the most common mistakes made by program providers?

Edward Latessa: One mistake providers make is that they do not address major risk factors associated with criminal behavior. They only address one or two risk factors, and often times that’s not sufficient. For example, employment: For many offenders employment is a risk factor, but people aren’t criminal because they are unemployed. Most of us, if we lost a job, we’d go out and get another job. While employment is important for offenders, if you don’t also deal with their substance abuse, the bad friends they hang around with and their criminal thinking, just getting them a job usually doesn’t do very much because they don’t last very long on those jobs.

On a practical level, how do you approach all these risk factors at the same time?

Edward Latessa: There are several ways this could be done. One is, you have to link them to different programs. Programs need to be designed to be multi-modal. So if I’m running a program that primarily tries to address employment, I also have to develop a component of that program that deals with the attitudes that people have about work and their criminal behavior. I’m going at their thinking as well as their job skills.

Many programs are ‘one size fits all’ – everybody gets the same intervention, even though we know that people have varying risk levels and have very different needs.

We have to start with their attitudes and their values, and their beliefs about their criminal behavior. If I don’t realize that I’m hurting people – my family, the victims – I’m more likely to do it again. That’s why what we really stress is good cognitive-behavioral programs that not only address their antisocial attitude, but teach them what you do when you get into risky situations, how do you get out of it.

What weaknesses do you see when you look at intermediaries that facilitate employment for ex-offenders?

Devah Pager: One concern has been, because intermediaries are competing for funding, that their incentives are to cherry-pick the best, the most promising members of the ex-offender population. There aren’t a lot of incentives to provide these services to the more difficult cases. So simply the kind of market pressure and financial vulnerabilities leave them to potentially cherry-pick.

This would actually explain STRIVE’s approach.

Devah Pager: Yes. ... The Center for Employment Opportunities [an employment agency for ex-offenders] has been great about these things. They have opened their doors to an evaluation by MDRC [a nonprofit education and research organization]. They have really good information on how effective these kinds of interventions are. That’s the big question. We sort of intuitively believe that providing skills training and job placement should have big effects in terms of recidivism and employment rates. But we actually don’t have a lot of good information on that, and the studies that exist are mixed in their findings. So I think those kinds of evaluations will help us to figure out what does work.

Can integration really be accomplished by mixing ex-offenders with ex-offenders, like it is done in many job readiness programs? Wouldn’t it be more useful to get these people out of that context and try to mix them with the general population?

Jeremy Travis: You have to have an opposite approach, which is that ex-offenders, in fact, can be a very strong support for ex-offenders. Sometimes the best person to talk to is someone who has come out of prison, because they know the experience. For some people wonderful things happen in prison and they come out with a very clear result. They hold on to that person and say, we just came out of prison together, let’s be each other’s support system. That’s what Alcoholics Anonymous does. Alcoholics hang out with alcoholics. Why? Because they understand the life they’ve been through. ...We need to find ways to look at the strength of that population. We are going to help them be an asset in the integration work that has to be done.

Legislation matters

Many experts argue that rehabilitation and societal reconnection could be accomplished more successfully if certain legal barriers to employment would be removed. To them, the federal Second Chance Act is an important step in remodeling the system. The act, as yet unpassed, is a legislative initiative to reduce recidivism, improve public safety, and help states and communities to better address the growing population of ex-offenders.

What are your policy recommendations?

Glenn Martin: I recommend that you tie accomplishments in prison to reduction in time. I’d recommend that we reinstate state level financial aid. People in prison should be eligible to TAP grants because that would bring the universities back. I recommend educational release. I’d recommend that every single person who walks out of a correctional facility walk out with a New York State ID.

I recommend a conditional sealing law, so that after a certain amount of time people have their records sealed, but it’s made available for law enforcement purposes; and if they get in trouble later on, it’s unsealed. I’d recommend an increased use of Alternative to Incarceration programs. I think we put way too many people in prison. A parole officer should gain incentives for keeping people out of prison and not for sending people back.

I’d recommend that the state, instead of contracting out certain jobs, create transitional employment for people with criminal records. I’d like to see the state remove every single absolute bar, maybe with exception of law enforcement and getting a weapon. Every single person should be looked at from an individual level.

What are the policy strategies or changes you suggest?

Devah Pager: One thing would be to promote the role of intermediaries. Groups like CEO can service a link between ex-offenders and employers, help with job training, supervision, placement, and build relationships. I think that is a very critical part of the transition process. ...Promoting incentives and offering better protection for employers would also help, and reducing liabilities and putting caps on liabilities, removing some of the bureaucratic requirements.

We have to move toward a system of limitations for information providers of criminal records. Right now it’s kind of this free-for-all. There is no oversight on the quality or accuracy of records that are being disseminated.

What do you think are the strengths of the Second Chance Act?

Jeremy Travis: The number one strength is that it’s an example of federal leadership. The money is modest, but the money is less important than the fact that the federal government is saying that America has to take responsibility for the safe return of hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens. In addition to that, the Act funds demonstration projects and will support the testing of ideas. It calls upon all the federal agencies to review the policies and procedures that might be barriers to successful re-entry. This becomes a model for how states should be doing it. In my writing I have highlighted a number of ways in which the federal government and our congress has made re-entry more difficult and increased the risks. Another piece of the Second Chance Act, which is very important, is that it calls upon the federal government to do some basic data collection to research the phenomenon. That is long overdue.

- Sabine Heinlein