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Increased Collaboration Between Jails and Communities Can Improve the Return of Inmates to Society

Washington, D.C., May 5, 2008 -- Nine million men and women are jailed each year, many more than once. In an average three-week period, local jails have contact with as many people as state and federal prisons do in an entire year.

Despite limited resources and a churning population of inmates beset by numerous problems, the nation’s 3,365 jails can do more to prevent crime by partnering with community organizations to improve the odds of inmates’ successful return to society, two new reports from the Urban Institute, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the Montgomery County (Maryland) Department of Correction and Rehabilitation demonstrate.

“Life after Lockup: Improving Reentry from Jail to the Community,” by Amy L. Solomon, Jenny W. L. Osborne, Stefan LoBuglio, Jeff Mellow, and Debbie Mukamal, is the first national resource focusing on jail inmates’ transition from incarceration to society. It presents an overview of U.S. jails and their population and how reentry from jail differs markedly from reentry from state and federal prisons.  The report examines concrete reentry steps, profiles 42 reentry programs around the country, and explores probation’s role in the process.

A companion report, “The Jail Administrators’ Toolkit for Reentry,” is a handbook on such issues as assessment of inmates’ needs, identifying community resources, educating the public, and measuring success. The report and the toolkit will be available at http://www.urban.org/.

The reports, funded by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, will be released Wednesday, May 7, at a congressional forum on “The Impact of Reentry from Local Jails.” The event is cohosted by Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Illinois) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas).

“In the short term, successful reentry might mean that inmates leave jail with a job to report to  and someone in the community ready for their return. More broadly, we would expect less crime, improved public health, and stronger, safer communities,” says Amy Solomon, senior research associate at the Urban Institute and lead author of the report.

The Reentry Challenge

Sixty-eight percent of jail inmates have drug or alcohol problems, 60 percent do not have a high school diploma or GED, 16 percent have a serious mental health illness, and 14 percent were homeless at some point during the year before incarceration, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Jails’ ability to respond to these challenges and aid reentry is limited, say the reports’ authors. In most communities, no organization is charged with facilitating the transition process and providing post-release support or supervision. Also, jails are responsible for many types of inmates with unpredictable stays, so release planning is difficult. With increasing demands, limited resources, and a focus on care, custody, and control, sheriffs and jail administrators have traditionally considered rehabilitation and reentry preparation low priorities.

However, jail reentry presents unique opportunities for intervention. Short stays -- 81 percent of inmates are behind bars for less than a month and only 4 percent stay longer than six months -- and local facilities mean that inmates spend relatively little time away from family, friends, treatment providers, employers, and other supports.

At the same time, jails’ limited resources and inmates’ short incarcerations indicate that jails cannot be solely responsible for the reentry process. Instead, new partnerships between jails and local service providers must be forged.

“Imagine the headway against the cycle of crime and incarceration if we shifted from just processing people locally to linking ex-inmates to services and programs that already exist in the community. We still have a long way to go, but these reports are pointing our jails in the right direction,” says Arthur Wallenstein, director of the Montgomery County (Maryland) Department of Correction and Rehabilitation.

Building a Successful Reentry Initiative

When planning a comprehensive reentry initiative, the authors suggest that jail administrators should consider

      allowing community health providers to come into the jail to treat chronically ill patients, set up post-release appointments, and provide a temporary supply of medications or prescriptions;

     permitting workforce development agencies to offer employment services to inmates, help them obtain driver’s licenses and Social Security cards, and prepare them for work;

     connecting inmates with formerly incarcerated people who have turned their lives around;

     encouraging family visits and regular contact with inmates;

     providing resource guides and reentry handbooks; and

     arranging for a family member or mentor to be at the jail when the inmate is released.

Since a large high-needs population is in jail, the authors urge community agencies to recognize the considerable overlap between the jail population and their clients -- and thus work with these inmates before they are released from jail.

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The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation.

About John Jay College of Criminal Justice: An international leader in educating for justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice of The City University of New York offers a rich liberal arts and professional studies curriculum to upwards of 14,000 undergraduate and graduate students from more than 135 nationsIn teaching, scholarship and research, the College approaches justice as an applied art and science in service to society and as an ongoing conversation about fundamental human desires for fairness, equality and the rule of law. For more information, visit http://www.jjay.cuny.edu/.