Imagine if you had no place to live, no job and no money. What would you do to survive? To get by, would you commit a crime?
Former inmates are faced with these questions far too often. Ex-offenders confront one pressing re-entry challenge after another, everything from finding a place to live and arranging drug abuse treatment to getting a job. A setback in any one of these areas can easily lead to relapse and a return to prison, what public policy analysts call “recidivism.” Researchers measure recidivism by looking at the criminal acts that ex-offenders commit in the three years after prison release. These days, researchers have a huge sample of ex-offenders to track.
Last November, changes to federal sentencing guidelines led to the release from custody of about 140 Maryland inmates, and hundreds more will be eligible for release in future months. Nationwide, the U.S. Sentencing Commission estimates that more than 46,000 inmates could have their sentences reduced by an average of 25 months; over 500 of them are expected to return to Maryland under these revised sentences, most to Baltimore.
These releases are taking place at a time when the city is experiencing an increase in homicides and shootings — and a deadly heroin epidemic. Such crime, many fear, will only increase when so many more inmates start returning to their home communities — a not unrealistic concern. The formerly incarcerated often find themselves facing the exact same pressures and temptations that landed them in prison in the first place. According to 2013 Maryland data, almost a third of Maryland prison admissions went to individuals returning to prison from parole.
So what can be done to keep people from cycling back into the system? Let’s start with jobs, perhaps the single most pressing obstacle that frustrates the formerly incarcerated.