How can inmates best transition from life behind bars? Options addressed at Birmingham summit

December 12, 2013
by Kelsey Stein

As Alabama’s prisons burst at the seams housing twice their capacity of inmates, many involved in the criminal justice system are exploring ways to help ex-offenders transition from living behind bars to becoming community members who, hopefully, will not commit another offense.

Between 10,000 and 11,000 inmates who are released from Alabama prisons each year struggle with readjusting, from finding somewhere to live to landing a job.

Reentry – when someone who has been incarcerated returns to the community – is often a difficult transition, as ex-offenders face obstacles such as finding a place to live and landing a job.

On Wednesday, the North Alabama Reentry Council held a reentry policy summit at Samford University, where speakers and panelists discussed ways to implement programs and reduce recidivism, which is ex-offenders returning to prison.

“Effective reentry involves the use of programs targeted at assisting people to acquire the life skills necessary to become productive members of society and law-abiding citizens, thereby making our communities safer,” U.S. District Judge Karon O. Bowdre said.

Several officials emphasized that, ultimately, developing reentry programs could foster safer communities and save taxpayers thousands of dollars.

Large-scale reentry programs must be discussed – “much, much bigger than the prison commissioner tweaking policies” – said Kim Thomas, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections.

“We can identify weaknesses within the system and bring policymakers to the table to discuss those weaknesses,” he said. “We need to establish some momentum in fixing those things that make our communities safer.”

Ideally, community corrections programs, which do not exist in about two dozen counties, would be created and developed throughout the state, while existing programs could be tailored to best serve individual offenders, Thomas said.

“These programs take someone who would otherwise be in a prison bed and treat that person locally,” whether through vocational training, substance abuse treatment or a work release program, he said.

Sen. Cam Ward, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said alternative programs like community corrections are the most practical and cost-effective way to handle many nonviolent offenders.

“You can’t build your way out of this,” he said. “One new prison is $120 million… And even if we built 10 new prisons, we’d have the same overcrowding problem in five to 10 years.”

The cost of housing one inmate is about four times that of putting nonviolent offenders in a community corrections program, meaning the savings could be reallocated toward other needs, he said.

Study groups are working to analyze data and brainstorm ideas for the most effective solution.

“It’s going to get solved one way or another,” Ward said. “Either the legislature will get the strength and fortitude to do it, or a federal judge can force us to do it.”

Thomas read a statement from Gov. Robert Bentley, who is recovering from hernia surgery.

In the statement, Bentley said he hopes to see the state combat prison overcrowding with “innovative” measures that reduce crime and protect the public. Upon their release, many inmates can contribute to society by becoming productive and taxpaying citizens.

“We must prioritize our prison bed space for those who pose the greatest danger to society,” Bentley said in the statement.

Bentley believes offering services for inmates, such as job training and lessons on how to conduct an interview, could build on education and training programs already in place.

“In my opinion, the successful reentry of an inmate back into society is an excellent return on the state’s investment while they are incarcerated,” Bentley said in the statement.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center, a national nonprofit that has analyzed evidence and provided advice to states facing similar issues, could intervene in Alabama at the request of officials from all three branches of government.

The national average for recidivism is 42 percent, Le’Ann Duran-Mitchell, a deputy director with the organization, said at the summit.

“But when state leaders focus on recidivism, they see improvement,” she said.

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