Making Life Easier on the Outside

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The United States is home to more prisoners than any other nation on earth. And with close to 700 out of every 100,000 residents in prison, the nation has the highest prison population rate in the developed world. Our prison system is expensive and highly punitive. At the same time, recidivism rates show that our model isn’t particularly good at deterring crime. Recognizing the failures of the nation’s decades-long tough on crime stance, a rare bipartisan discussion of corrections reform has gained national momentum. With a renewed focus on investing in programs, services, and initiatives that equip formerly incarcerated individuals with the skills they need to navigate the world outside, we take a look at some of the more successful national models, staring here in California.


In San Francisco, the County Sheriff’s Department has found great success in reducing the recidivism rate for adults by helping them earn a high school degree. In 2003, the Sheriff’s Department began the Five Keys Charter School, targeting male inmates at first. Within five years, they expanded operations to a women’s jail and opened a study hall to give graduates access to support services after they’ve been released. In 2012, the program was introduced to Los Angeles County jails, with impressive results. While the national recidivism rate (measured by calculating the number of re-arrests for released individuals) has hovered just below 70 percent, participants enrolled in the Five Keys Charter School report a far lower figure, with just 28 percent of individuals reoffending.

The Five Keys program is one of a number of efforts aimed at equipping inmates with the skills they’ll need to successfully reenter society. Recognizing that the nation’s policies precluded many inmates from pursuing an education while incarcerated, philanthropists stepped in to help provide prisoners with the skills they’d need to pursue a high school and/or college education and lead more stable lives on the outside. The model offered an alternative to the increasingly expensive corrections system we have today.

The growing number of funders investing in these efforts include the Sunshine Lady Foundation, Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundations, and the Kresge Foundation. These investments are premised on the notion that providing formerly incarcerated individuals with resources, skills, and services both before and after they are released can substantially reduce rates of reoffending. By providing supportive services that promote education, job training, stable housing, and personal growth, formerly incarcerated individuals stand a much better chance of leading a crime-free life after they’re released. For taxpayers, investing in these supportive services is typically cheaper than paying to incarcerate someone after they’ve reoffended. And seemingly limited interventions can significantly reduce recidivism.

Properly executed, a rehabilitative model that makes education opportunities available in prisons has the potential to significantly reduce recidivism. At New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Hudson Link launched a program that allowed inmates to pursue a college degree in 1998. For program participants, the recidivism rate was just two percent. Likewise, the Vera Institute of Justice’s Pathway from Prison program, is working in Michigan, New Jersey, and North Carolina to develop an evidence-based model that combines access to higher education with supportive reentry services. The pilot’s aim is to demonstrate the effectiveness of the model by quantifying the educational outcomes, recidivism rates, employment opportunities, and earnings potential for participants.

Pathway from Prison will build on a growing body of evidence that shows that educational programs and reentry services can significantly improve outcomes for formerly incarcerated individuals. In 2013, RAND Corporation found that inmate participation in educational programs reduces the probability of recidivism by 43 percent. Faced with this reality, President Obama announced in late July that access to Pell Grants will be restored for formerly incarcerated adults. These individuals will now be able to access financial aid for college coursework and better equip themselves for entering the workforce.

While educational programming is critical to successfully integrating former inmates back into society, it is just one element of a comprehensive reentry model. Nationwide, organizations are testing models that focus on coordinating the many interventions that have been shown to reduce recidivism. This includes coordinating education, workforce training, job placement, cognitive behavioral therapy, housing, and mentorship services as part of a comprehensive suite of reentry services for high-risk populations. The Los Angeles-based, Anti-Recidivism Coalition is one of many groups working with current and former inmates, community partners, policymakers, and corrections officials to help formerly incarcerated people navigate the reentry landscape. To dramatically reduce recidivism and see the benefits of helping former inmates establish healthy and economically stable lifestyles, it will truly take a suite of innovative, cross-sector services.

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