Washington: More than 625,000 former prisoners will be coming back into U.S. society this year, part of a record flow of prisoners who will face crushing obstacles in finding work and housing and repairing long-fractured family ties, according to a newly released study.
The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit agency, found that returning prisoners often face so many restrictions after long stretches of incarceration that the conditions amount to more years of "invisible punishment." The study warned that their chances of staying out of prison and remaining crime-free are greatly diminished by laws that were promoted as being tough on crime.
Denial of welfare benefits for even minor drug-related offenses, rejection of former inmates for accommodations in public housing, a lack of drug-treatment programs, restrictions on employment and a dearth of transitional housing are some of the factors that make it difficult for former inmates to reenter society, the study's authors say.
"There's always been an American belief that once you pay your debt, you are free to rejoin the community, but these policies now form a sort of permanent second-class citizenship," said Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project and co-editor of the report.
For years, the Sentencing Project has championed alternatives to incarceration and called for criminal justice reforms.
The study, released this week, was presented in 16 essays and reports that were collected in a 355-page book, "Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Incarceration."
Last year, more than 25,000 former prisoners returned to communities in the District, Maryland and Virginia, a volume projected to continue for the foreseeable future.
Advocates are not the only ones concerned that the former prisoners could fall back into crime. D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said that 43 percent of the city's homicide victims this year were released from the D.C. jail or from federal prison within the last two years. Not all were convicted felons, he said; some had served time for misdemeanors or had been in jail awaiting trial.
Each year, more than 2,000 former inmates [prisoners] return from prison to District streets, and Ramsey said that many return without job prospects. He said some are killed while trying to reclaim their positions in the drug trade and neighborhood crews. "Some of it's drugs. . . . Some of it is old scores being settled," Ramsey said. "I think many of them, if given an opportunity and given a job, would not fall prey to this," Ramsey said in an interview.
About 9,000 prisoners were released from state prisons in Virginia in fiscal 2002, and 14,000 in Maryland.
U.S. prison and jail populations have mushroomed from 501,000 to 2 million people during the past two decades, by far the most among industrialized nations.
The aftershocks of that wave of incarcerations are beginning to be felt, analysts and law enforcement officials say. The number of prisoners being released has more than doubled since 1994, when it was 272,000, and there is no agreement about how best to deal with the return of so many to their old neighborhoods.
Justice Department statistics show that more than 60 percent of former prisoners are rearrested within three years of release. Some laws have destroyed the "safety net" for returning prisoners, according to the Sentencing Project and other experts.
The Higher Education Act of 1998, for example, bars people convicted of drug-related offenses from receiving student loans. In one recent school year, more than 9,000 people were deemed ineligible for the help.
Amy Hirsch, an attorney with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, has studied a 1996 federal law that imposes a lifetime ban on people convicted of drug offenses from receiving family welfare benefits and food stamps. She found that the law had a devastating effect on women released from prison.
More than 80 percent of the women in Hirsch's study said that they began using drugs in their early teens after suffering some form of sexual abuse and that they did not receive drug treatment until they entered the prison system.
"They come out of jail hopeful, clean and sober, and then come out and run into this brick wall," Hirsch said. "All the things they need to get their life started back is off limits, and there's nothing they can do about it. They wind up homeless, back on street . . . that law has a terrible effect on their ability to refrain from relapsing into addiction."
A number of states have opted out of the federal law, she said, as lawmakers have come to realize the unanticipated effects of the legislation.
Toni, a 46-year-old D.C. woman who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used, has spent 18 years in prison for three armed robberies. She was released from prison last September and is slowly building a new life, turning a community-service assignment from her parole into a full-time job as a receptionist with a women's support group.
She attends seven Narcotics Anonymous meetings a week and last week moved out of transitional housing. "I've stayed connected with people who are positive and who showed me I could get where I wanted to be," she said. "I've had a lot of help, and I stay very close to those people. I wanted to do better for myself finally, to stop living in the past."
Some lawmakers are working to rescind some of the restrictions cited in the Sentencing Project's study. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has introduced legislation to make former drug offenders eligible for the student loan program. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) has worked on a bill that would allow released felons to vote in federal elections.
Yesterday, Reps. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.) and Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.) announced that they were introducing legislation to provide tax credits to encourage the construction of transitional housing for former inmates who emerge from prison without a place to live or immediate job prospects.
Drawing support from a number of nationwide advocacy organizations, including the Legal Action Center and the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Davis and Souder called for better ways of helping inmates [prisoners] return to society.
The Sentencing Project's study noted that incarceration rates and the problems of returning prisoners carry distinct racial overtones.
One contributor to the report, Donald Braman, spent three years studying the impact of high incarceration on D.C. families. Braman cited an earlier study that found that half of the black male population ages 18 to 35 in the District is under some form of correctional supervision, and he estimated that 7 percent of the adult black male population returns from prison to city neighborhoods each year.
Margaret Love, a former Justice Department attorney who recently chaired a city commission that researched sites for new halfway houses, said the stigma of incarceration is difficult to overcome.
"People are scared to death of [ex] criminals and don't see them as members of our community," she said.
By Neely Tucker posted 29 May 03
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