In July 2014, the United States Sentencing Commission approved long overdue revisions to sentencing guidelines for drug trafficking offenses. This action is the result of widespread agreement that the disproportionate sentences for certain drug-related crimes are a civil rights violation and an unjust, ineffective, and costly set of policies.
Considering that around 50% of inmates in federal prison are incarcerated for drug charges, the new guidelines promise to lead to a significant reduction in mass incarceration. In fact, beginning in November 2015, the shorter sentences can also be applied retroactively to over 40,000 eligible prisoners. These bipartisan reforms represent a beacon of hope for many inmates and their families.
However, progress in sentencing must be matched with equal attention to what will happen to former prisoners after they are released. Reentry is never as simple as opening the gates and letting someone out. Even short periods of incarceration cause major life disruptions, including the loss of jobs and housing. These barriers, plus expensive court fees, make rebuilding a life immensely difficult and complicated. Because of their time and jail and overcrowded living conditions, reentering citizens often suffer severe mental and physical effects such as PTSD and a much higher rate of communicable diseases. Given the many serious obstacles that come with involvement in the criminal justice system, few people are able to navigate reentry without significant support.
Yet despite the clear need for assistance, former offenders are blocked from many federal and local aid programs that are designed to help people secure basic necessities. Probation officers in some jurisdictions even give out tents to their clients because they know that it will be difficult to find a place to live. Even social services that are available are often difficult to access, since many former offenders lack things like a valid driver’s license, car, and a working telephone.
One widely acknowledged key factor in successful reentry is employment, which is extremely difficult for ex-offenders to obtain. Even individuals with solid work histories and marketable skills are rejected repeatedly, often on the basis of their status as a reentering citizen, although their charge does not impact their ability to do their job. When they finally do find an employer willing to hire them, the job is often low-paying and unsustainable.
As a direct service worker who provides employment services to reentering citizens, I worked with a middle-aged woman who had a single shoplifting charge but a decade of solid work experience in an office. She struggled for two years to find work and finally settled for a low-paying janitorial job. An employment specialist at another agency told her not to bother looking for a better job until her charge was at least five years old. People who have served longer sentences face the additional barrier of long gaps in their resumes; lack of familiarity with modern technology; and disconnection from support systems.
At best, many individuals in this situation become dependent on nonprofit aid and social services. At worst, they re-offend and are once again involved in the criminal justice system. This vicious cycle serves no one.
In order to ensure that the new sentencing guidelines will bring the most benefit, we must improve the existing reentry process. Here are five ways to do that:
- Shore up existing, successful reentry programs and share their models. Ensure that nonprofit agencies and government programs can handle increased caseloads and provide the material support people need as they transition back into the community;
- Update laws to remove barriers that keep ex-offenders with drug charges from receiving benefits like SNAP, TANF, or housing assistance.
- Eliminate penalties that serve no public safety purpose. For example, license suspension is a common penalty applied to force people to pay court fees and fines. When you take away someone’s ability to drive, you greatly decrease their ability to work and pay what they owe. People can even be re-incarcerated for failure to pay, destroying whatever progress they have made, and trapping them in cycles of incarceration.
- Update employment laws related to the hiring of ex-offenders. Many jurisdictions have begun this process with ban-the-box legislation. But these laws will do little if they merely postpone a negative answer. There need to be laws with real consequences for discrimination against former offenders or substantial incentives for companies that have positive second chance hiring policies.
Real rehabilitation and successful reentry are possible. The new sentencing guidelines are a great start but they need to be matched with an equally strong push for smart, effective reentry policies. Without such measures, the myth that criminals can never change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.