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Recovery Legislation Offers Chance to Improve Failing Re-Entry System

President Biden’s American Jobs Plan and his American Families Plan present a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reduce barriers for incarcerated people to successfully re-enter their communities by providing necessary access to nutritious foods, health care, and employment.

Of the staggering 2.3 million people incarcerated on a given day in America, 95 percent will return to our communities, most of them hoping to live free and successful lives. Those returning, however, are much likelier to be re-arrested within five years than to successfully re-enter, and most re-arrests will come in the first year after release. While the global leader in per capita incarceration, the United States is also among the worst nations in recidivism rate. While some of the blame is attributable to the lack of rehabilitative services in prison settings, a large body of research has concluded that a mix of discrimination, inadequate supports, and legal barriers to opportunities set returning citizens up for failure.

Black and Latino communities bear the brunt of the nation’s re-entry challenges, as they are vastly over-represented in the criminal justice system. A vicious cycle of the War on Drugs, economic disinvestment, over-policing of communities of color, and racially discriminatory sentencing practices has created a system in which Black adults are 5.9 times and Latinx adults are 3.1 times as likely as whites to be incarcerated. Due to insufficient re-entry services and supports as well as discriminatory policies, incarceration begets incarceration in a revolving door that has devastated Black and Latino communities for generations: children of incarcerated parents are, on average, six times likelier to become incarcerated, and roughly 30 percent of incarcerated people are Black fathers.

President Biden’s recovery package includes two key provisions to improve re-entry: (1) an end to the lifetime ban on SNAP (food stamp) benefits for people with drug-related felony convictions, and (2) an expansion of subsidized employment, which is a proven tool to enable returning citizens to overcome discrimination and societal barriers to entering the workforce. As lawmakers consider recovery legislation in the coming weeks, they also should broaden health care access to those leaving jail and prison. If enacted, all of these policies could significantly reduce the risk of reincarceration and promote equity.

Policymakers should repeal the particularly cruel measure denying returning citizens access to sorely needed nutrition assistance, which was enacted as part of the problematic 1996 welfare reform legislation. Several states have rolled back the SNAP ban on those with drug convictions (as states have the authority to do), but it creates barriers to essential food in 20 others — despite evidence that access to public benefits reduces the risk of recidivism. Given that formerly incarcerated people face societal stigma as well as discrimination in employment and housing, and less than 1 in 4 has a high school diploma, it is not surprising that 91 percent are food insecure. Since 1 in 5 people are incarcerated for drug-related offenses, repealing this provision would have a deep and significant impact, especially in Black and Latino communities. Re-entering individuals, who have already served their time, should not be denied fundamental benefits that the general public enjoys.

To improve re-entry success, policymakers also should provide robust funding for subsidized employment programs and target it toward returning citizens. Such programs — which provide work experience, income support, and a bridge to permanent, unsubsidized employment — can help reduce recidivism and reincarceration and promote public safety. A labyrinth of legal and social exclusions block formerly incarcerated people from many job opportunities. Nearly half of returning citizens have no reported earnings in the first several years after leaving prison and, for those who find work, half earned less than $10,090 a year. By providing a temporary, subsidized on-ramp into the workforce for returning citizens, pilot programs across the country have demonstrated increased long-term earning potential and less future dependence on public benefits.

Though they have disproportionately high rates of substance abuse disorders, mental health issues, and chronic physical health conditions when beginning their incarceration, returning citizens still must contend with significant barriers to getting connected to much needed medical treatment in their communities. Nearly all returning citizens have a chronic condition that requires consistent medical treatment, and yet they often go without need health care while incarcerated and return home without adequate access to medications or a care plan. That helps explain why returning citizens are 3.5 times likelier to die prematurely than the general population. While states and localities have made great strides in enrolling returning citizens in Medicaid, recovery legislation should include investments in re-entry services to better serve people with chronic conditions, substance use disorders, and serious mental illness. The investments should include in-reach services, in which case managers, clinicians, or support professionals visit people in jail or prison to assess their health needs and create care plans for their return home. In the recovery legislation, policymakers should add health care provisions for re-entering people that would improve care coordination.

By almost any measure, our re-entry system fails to provide sorely needed supports and services to returning citizens. As the nation continues to emerge from COVID-19 and grapple with racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, we must provide an honest second chance at a free and prosperous life for people leaving incarceration.