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Get a Job, Stay Out of Prison

Ilana Novick

High recidivism rates are a perennial problem for the U.S. criminal justice system. Over 650,000 inmates are released from prison every year, according to the Department of Justice. If current trends continue, about half of them will return to prison within three years.

There are countless, complex social and economic factors that contribute to these trends, but those that find jobs are less likely to go back. Unfortunately, finding a stable full-time job, already a problem for former inmates (and let's be honest, all of us), even in good economic times, is one of the leading indicators of whether a former inmate will thrive outside of the prison system. Which is where a recent program from the Safer Foundation in Chicago comes in.
Their Safer Return program, which recently completed a three year trial in Chicago’s Garfield Park neighborhood, aimed to prove that with intense, sustained community involvement and investment, in particular the neighhoord could cut its recidivism rate in half. Between April 2008 and October 2011, Safer Return sought to enroll every Illinois Department of Corrections inmate released to Garfield Park.
The program uses a comprehensive, place-based approached to better coordinate existing services, and using more direct outreach to families of inmates prior to their release. As the Safer Foundation's Director of Client Services told the National Journal, "You can't treat people in a vacuum." The program recognizes that it's not just the inmate, but their family and the larger network of community organizations and neighborhood residents that are responsible for his or her outcomes post-prison. Safer Return isn't necessarily trying to reinvent the wheel, but to better improve the performance and collaboration of existing programs and networks, and even law enforcement. 
The program begins with pre-release outreach to families and "Welcome Home" information sessions throughout the neighborhood, which aimed to target inmates as soon as they were released from prison, access to job-placement services, mental health and substance-abuse treatment, support groups, and neighborhood activities.
Inmates often work for local small businesses, who in exchange for hiring the inmates get a federal tax break. But that's not the only benefit. As one bakery owner noted, while they might require some initial extra hand-holding, "are just as hard working and motivated as anyone else she has on staff, she says, in part because they’re so grateful to be given work."
Aside from the partnerships with small businesses, the most promising aspect of the Safer Return program, may be the new connections with local parole offices. Parole offficers and social service organizations are often at odds, but the foundation's work strengthening relationships between social services and parole officers helped officers feel more comfortable evaluating their charges' behavior on a case-by-case basis, and are less likely to report violations. When law enforcement agencies and social service agencies trust each other and share information, everyone benefits. 
In three years, the initiative--which was supported by a $5 million MacArthur Foundation grant--served 727 former prisoners. The evaluation is still ongoing, but the MacArthur Foundation was confident enough to give $1.5 million to cover the Urban Institute's evaluation. Experts remains cautious, as previous evaluations of anti-reentry programs note that employment programs and other services alone can't reduce the stigma of incarceration, which according to a 2010 Pew Report reduces former inmate's earnings by 40%. Even the Safer Foundation's Perry admits that a 50% reduction is a tall order. 
Still, the Urban Institute remains optimistic, as does the MacArthur Foundation. If programs like this can greatly lower recidivism rates, the result will be less crime, lower public costs, and more people on their way to economic security.