Why the Fed Cares about Reentry of Ex-Offenders: Leveraging AB 109

By Lena Robinson

In 2011, Governor Jerry Brown of California signed the Public Safety Realignment Act (AB109) – (a.k.a. “realignment”) designed to reduce overcrowding in California’s 33 state prisons and provide alternative forms of supervision for low-level offenders. The legislation places greater responsibility on county governments to supervise this population and provides discretionary funding to these counties for implementation. The average budget allocation for realignment for the entire state has been roughly $6.25 billion annually. Since the first year of the realignment process, approximately 80,000 inmates have been released to complete their sentence under community supervision and begin the process of reintegration. One important question is what level of resources and conditions will these former inmates be returning to?

Realignment is the Mandate, Reentry is the First Step, Reintegration is the Goal

The successful reintegration of formerly incarcerated men and women is one of the most significant challenges facing not only California, but the entire country. It is an issue that disproportionately impacts the most socially and economically disadvantaged communities, often contributing to a cycle of poverty and incarceration in future generations. A 2003 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that inmates from homes without two parents or with an incarcerated parent were less likely to have completed high school, and 47 percent of inmates had at some point lived in public housing or received welfare.

Successful reintegration largely depends on a person’s ability to gain access to housing, employment, transportation and other services that have been shown to minimize the risks that may lead to committing another criminal offense or violating probation. The tragedy is that many of those being released to community supervision are returning to communities that do not have adequate resources for successful reentry. For the lucky ones, reunification with family or supportive networks with the resources to provide a safety net will offer a smoother transition.

The discretionary funding provided to counties under AB109 presents a tremendous opportunity to invest in reentry services that can rebuild the lives of men and women who desperately want a shot at success. Certainly not every dollar can be used for reentry services as there will always be a need for jail facilities and law enforcement. The challenge is finding the right balance for public safety and human capital rehabilitation. This is the challenge that criminal justice is grappling with in 58 counties, where some are further along in their efforts than others.

Realignment is a Community Development Opportunity

The landscape of programs and organizations that can facilitate successful reintegration varies by county. Many of the community development program providers that are engaged with improving opportunities for low-income people are now stretching to extend these services to formerly incarcerated individuals. Housing and employment are the two areas where collective investments and support from public, private and philanthropic partners are needed the most. These investments will not only benefit individuals, but also their families and the communities to which they return.

The correlation between incarceration, poverty and place are too strong to overlook. Race, zip code and educational attainment are the three strongest predictors of a person’s financial and social stability. These three factors are also the strongest predictors of who will spend time behind bars and who will not. An investment in reentry services is a way to address a system that disproportionately impacts certain racial groups and communities.

President Obama’s recent visit to El Reno prison, his commutations of excessively long prison sentences, and the frequent incidents of the disparate exposure of African Americans to law enforcement have intensified the spotlight on the criminal justice system and on mass incarceration and its long term detrimental consequences.

A Holistic Strategy: Place, People, Programs

The complexity of crime, punishment, and social disadvantage is impervious to fast fixes and simple solutions. Social Impact Bonds (SIBs) are increasingly being promoted as a way to attract large capital investments to reduce recidivism. One of the challenges of these “pay for success” structures is that they typically address only one point of intervention that falls within a convergence of multiple issues. For example, the Goldman Sachs Riker Island SIB focused primarily on cognitive behavior therapy–evidenced based–when the challenge of rehabilitation is so much more complicated.

Successful reintegration of formerly incarcerated men and women is not one size fits all. Every person and community is unique which complicates the challenge of developing programs and addressing the multiple issues that this population faces. The notion that an individual can thrive and avoid recidivism in an economically fragile and socially impacted neighborhood is naïve. Social and public investments in reentry services must be made at a level commensurate with the challenge and coordinated to create communities where the formerly incarcerated have a shot at success.

Reentry Solutions for Success is a conference with and for formerly incarcerated people; it is a conference about investable opportunities that will allow men and women, many of whom are mothers and fathers, to live healthier and more productive lives. We invite you to participate in this conference to find new opportunities for investments, funding, research and partnerships.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco or of the Federal Reserve System.

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