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Criminal justice reform: 7 things to know about the latest re-entry research

The latest Safe Streets & Second Chances research provides an inside look at the challenges and successes of people from across the country who are re-entering communities

April 8, 2019

min read

As many as 10,000 people are released from prisons each week across the United States, but their experiences can vary dramatically. They face many barriers to success, from maintaining resilient support systems to securing identification, housing, and employment.

A group of independent researchers with Florida State University’s Institute for Justice Research and Development has announced their latest findings to determine the best practices for individuals re-entering our communities after serving their time. The research will inform the work of Safe Streets & Second Chances, a first-of-its-kind re-entry initiative launched last year in Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania and Kentucky, supported by Koch Industries.

Dr. Carrie Pettus-Davis, an independent researcher, associate professor at Florida State University, and founding director of FSU’s Institute for Justice Research and Development, joined Mark Holden, senior vice president for Koch Industries, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin and Justice and Public Safety Secretary John Tilley in Frankfort, Kentucky, to discuss the latest report. 

Here are seven key takeaways:

1. Support systems are critical for re-entry success

Participants who lacked strong family connections were more isolated and more likely to be homeless or to become homeless. For some, reconnecting with family can be a challenge.

“He avoids his old friends, but he is afraid to make new friendships because of old habits that he does not want to repeat. He is stressed and anxious about where he fits in society,” one researcher found of a participant.

2. The most common challenge: Finding jobs and housing

Dealing with the collateral consequences of being a former prisoner, such as finding a job or housing, is the most universal challenge among participants.

“Finding a job is the most hard. I can’t get hired when they hear I’m a felon,” one participant said in the report. Others echoed this point, including another participant, who said, “The biggest challenge is getting a job with a felony conviction – interviewed for four jobs, didn’t get them. This felony charge seems to be the reason I am not getting work.”

[Read how Koch is leading the Getting Talent Back to Work Pledge]

3. Adjusting to life on the outside is hard

Whether they had been incarcerated for two years or two decades, researchers found that many participants struggle with the lingering psychological effects once they are released.

“I am used to certain structures in prison. I am not comfortable being out – am confused and lost, don’t know what I’m supposed to do because there is not structure. Everything has changed since I went in. I don’t have the necessities – it is like I got out of prison naked, been walking around that way. Will feel more clothed and human as things fall into place. It is like I am still in prison, just out here,” one participant said.

4. The psychological toll of re-entry is great

More specifically, researchers found that many participants fear going back to prison.

“Staying off the streets is hard. I know everybody so it’s hard to avoid bad influences,” one participant said.

For another the challenge is “changing thinking patterns. Challenging pre-conceptions, fears and insecurities I have. It’s a daily struggle.”

5. Independence and self-sufficiency are important

Less than 40 percent of study participants in all four states reported having a driver’s license. Others lacked state IDs, birth certificates, or Social Security cards. This creates strain with personal relationships, as participants told researchers that not being able to drive made them feel like “a drain” on their support systems. It also makes finding a job much more difficult.

The desire for independence and self-sufficiency is clear when it comes to adapting to technological and other changes to society since their incarceration.

“My issue is the electronics. Credit card stuff, swiping. I don’t know what I’m doing when I go to a store – I was away for 17 years. I look like a fool. My wife has to help – swipe it, enter the pin,” one participant recounted.

6. Sixty percent of study participants were living in someone else’s home

Underscoring the importance of close familial ties in re-entry, most of those 60 percent were living in the home of a family member. Approximately 15 percent lived in a halfway house, while slightly fewer reporting in their own homes or apartments. Others reported living in transitional housing, as well as hotels, motels, and on the streets.

7. Even places where help is available, it’s hard to get

In their conversations with former inmates, researchers found that many struggled to get connected with services due to long waitlists and other barriers, including the transportation and ID issues.

Detailing the experience in a halfway house, one participant “thought there would be a lot more services available, but it is like pulling teeth to get help and services. … Supposed to be drug and alcohol services, mental health services, re-entry services – if they are here, I don’t know about them.”

The ongoing research underscores why Koch continues to support criminal justice reform at all levels – by opening opportunities for everybody in society, people can improve their lives and communities.

Read the full report here.