April 2023 was Second Chance Month, a time that is focused on ensuring those who have been involved with the criminal justice system are truly given the opportunity to successfully reenter their communities. As we work our way towards the end of summer, it is easy for this focus to get lost with everything else that is going on in our personal and professional lives. To remind us of the importance of this month and all that it signifies throughout the year, I want to share some information about reentry from incarceration and highlights from a reentry simulation the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) held during Second Chance Month.
The Department of Justice reports there are more than 600,000 people returning to the community from incarceration on a yearly basis. These people are disproportionately Black, Native American, and Latino. For example, Black people make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, but 38 percent of individuals who are incarcerated.1 Those returning from correctional settings face compounding forms of marginalization and have multiple complex needs that can include (but are not limited to) difficulty obtaining gainful employment, accessing housing and transportation, receiving treatment for physical and mental health issues, experiencing substance use disorders, and accessing higher education. Most of those returning to the community have faced these obstacles before their engagement with the justice system. Research shows that people also struggle when our systems do not provide access to services to meet basic needs, and unfortunately, re-arrest is a common outcome after release. For those held in state prisons, the rate of re-arrest is estimated at over 60 percent within the first three years after release and increases to over 80 percent within 9 years after release.2
These high rates of re-involvement with the criminal justice system are a cause for concern, and the mortality rate of people after release is equally alarming. Risk of death is significantly higher after release and incarceration overall is associated with decreased life expectancy.3,4 Substance use disorders are one major cause of this. Overdose is the leading cause of death among people recently released from prison and the third leading cause of death in custody in U.S. jails.5 People incarcerated in state prisons are 129 times more likely to die from an overdose within two weeks after their release compared to the general public.6 This underscores the role health and human services can play to help individuals survive and thrive as they reenter society.
On May 25th 2022, to increase public trust and enhance public safety and security by encouraging equitable and community-oriented policing, the Biden-Harris Administration issued the Executive Order on Advancing Effective, Accountable Policing and Criminal Justice Practices to Enhance Public Trust and Public Safety. This executive order established the Federal Interagency Alternatives and Reentry Committee (ARC) which is charged with developing and coordinating the implementation of a strategic plan to reduce racial, ethnic, and other disparities in the Nation’s criminal justice system. To complement this work, and in honor of Second Chance Month, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), and the HHS Partnership Center hosted a reentry from incarceration simulation in the Great Hall on Wednesday, April 12, 2023. This reentry simulation allowed HHS leadership and staff to experience a fraction of the complicated and often biased reality of navigating services for individuals reentering the community from incarceration. It elevated the challenges faced by many and sparked ideas for HHS action in accordance with Biden-Harris Administration priorities.
Hope MacDonald Lone Tree, Deputy Commissioner for the Administration for Native Americans in ACF, opened the event with an overview of the scale of the criminal justice system, citing that around 5.5 million people are currently incarcerated or on probation or parole. Rachel Pryor, Counselor to Secretary Becerra, shared the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to advancing effective and accountable policing and criminal justice reform policies. Remarks highlighted important work HHS is doing related to criminal justice reform, such as:
- A new ASPE report on the community effects of use of force by law enforcement on physical, mental, and public health.
- HHS’s work and future plans highlighted in The White House Alternatives, Rehabilitation, and Reentry Strategic Plan.
Tasha Aikens, Policy Advisor at the U.S. Department of Justice, facilitated the reentry simulation. During this simulation, HHS staff received faux identities of individuals who were recently released from incarceration, along with basic information on demographics and current social circumstances. The participants completed activities that are typical of someone who has recently been released, such as getting government identification, finding employment, maintaining community supervision requirements, and seeking substance use treatment. At the end of the simulation, most HHS staff failed to complete many of the daily tasks required to maintain their livelihood after reentry and as a result, experienced housing insecurity and even reincarceration. HHS staff shared how this experience provided tremendous insight into the everyday challenges and barriers endured by those returning to their communities from incarceration.
The event concluded with a panel elevating insight from those with lived experience. , The panel included y Clinton Lacey, President and CEO of the Credible Messenger Mentoring Movement, John Bae and Angel Sanchez, Second Chance Fellows at DOJ and was moderated by Dr. Rev. Que English, Director of the HHS Partnership Center.. Reflecting on the simulation and their personal experiences with reentry, the panel touched on what is needed for an individual’s success after release from incarceration. Clinton Lacey explained that “…people go in [to carceral settings] often hurt and failed and underserved…and we know inside it does not get better…so then they come home with unaddressed needs and with collateral consequences and barriers…by and large people have been vastly impacted and have fallen through the cracks, been failed by a host of other institutions of care by the time they get to the [justice] system.”
The expectations placed on those returning after incarceration can prove quite burdensome and nearly impossible, as the simulation showed. Angel Sanchez remarked that “If individuals are failing, these institutions should not be succeeding…incentives are often misaligned where your failure doesn’t matter to these institutions, and worse, your failure is ensuring job employment opportunities and job security…there then is no reason for empathy and all [those returning] are going to depend on chance or charity. And we should not be depending on chance or charity, we should want standardized success.”
The availability of services for those returning varies widely across the country. While some areas dedicate significant time and resources to develop services specific to those released on community supervision, other areas work to make the best of more fragmented resources and approaches to service delivery. Lacey argued that we need more than just a service model or approach, and “…there needs to be a shift from investments and reliance on government systems and agencies and a need for a shift to a greater investment and reliance on community, people, particularly people who have been impacted, who have a perspective, who have experience, who have solutions, who have expertise.” John Bae echoed this sentiment and reiterated that “…changing the process begins with reorienting our thinking about some of these reentry challenges. Things like education, transportation, housing aren’t criminal justice issues, these are community issues...”
As the conversation ended, the panelists highlighted other ways to measure success, including increasing community collaboration and individual empowerment. And while the standard measure of successful reentry is often avoiding a return to the criminal justice system, Sanchez highlighted that “…if we want to start changing some of the inequities, we need to have the individuals who we are serving empowered with pathways so that they could not only be served but be the best at serving others.” This underscored Lacey’s call to move to greater investment in people and “…move from criminal justice to human justice…”
These words shared during the panel discussion still have a strong impact on me today. They have inspired us at HHS to continue moving forward with a re-invigorated energy in our reentry related work and I hope they inspire you to take similar efforts in your work. For a compiled list of reentry resources that could help you to advance reentry efforts in your area, please visit the Office of Minority Health’s Reentry Resources webpage. Those interested in learning more about potentially hosting a reentry simulation in their area can reach out to Tasha Aikens at Tasha.Aikens2@usdoj.gov.
1 Sawyer, W. & Wagner, P. (2023, March 14). Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2023. Prison Policy Initiative. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2023.html
2 Alper, M., Durose, M.R. & Markman, J. (2018). 2018 update on prisoner recidivism: A 9-year follow-up period (2005-2014). Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
3 Binswanger, Ingrid A., Marc F. Stern, Richard A. Deyo, Patrick J. Heagerty, Allen Cheadle, Joann G. Elmore, and Thomas D. Koepsell. "Release from prison—a high risk of death for former inmates." New England Journal of Medicine 356, no. 2 (2007): 157-165.
4 Patterson, Evelyn J. "The dose–response of time served in prison on mortality: New York State, 1989–2003." American Journal of Public Health 103, no. 3 (2013): 523-528.
5 Binswanger, Ingrid A., Patrick J. Blatchford, Shane R. Mueller, and Marc F. Stern. "Mortality after prison release: opioid overdose and other causes of death, risk factors, and time trends from 1999 to 2009." Annals of internal medicine 159, no. 9 (2013): 592-600.
6 Fiscella, Kevin, Margaret Noonan, Susan H. Leonard, Subrina Farah, Mechelle Sanders, Sarah E. Wakeman, and Jukka Savolainen. "Drug-and alcohol-associated deaths in US Jails." Journal of Correctional Health Care 26, no. 2 (2020): 183-193.