April 2023 was Second Chance Month, a time that focuses on ensuring that those who have been involved in the criminal justice system truly have the opportunity to successfully reenter their communities. As we approach the end of summer, it’s easy for this focus to get lost with everything else going on in our personal and professional lives. To remind us of the importance of this month and all that it means throughout the year, I want to share information about reentry from incarceration and highlights from a reentry simulation that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ( HHS) conducted during Second Chance Month. .
The Department of Justice reports that each year more than 600,000 people return to the community after being incarcerated. 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 incarcerated people.1 Those returning from correctional settings face aggravated forms of marginalization and have multiple complex needs that may include (but are not limited to) difficulties obtaining gainful employment, accessing housing and transportation, receiving treatment for physical and mental health problems, experiencing substance use disorders, substances and access to higher education. Most of those returning to the community have faced these obstacles before becoming involved with the justice system. Research shows that people also struggle when our systems do not provide access to services to meet their basic needs, and unfortunately, rearrest is a common outcome upon release. For those detained in state prisons, the rate of rearrest is estimated at more than 60 percent within the first three years after release and increases to more than 80 percent within nine years after release.2
These high rates of reentry into the criminal justice system are cause for concern, and the mortality rate of individuals after their release is equally alarming. The risk of death is significantly higher after release and incarceration is generally associated with lower life expectancy.3,4 Substance use disorders are a major cause of this. Overdose is the leading cause of death among people recently released from prison and the third leading cause of in-custody death in U.S. prisons.5 People incarcerated in state prisons are 129 times more likely to die from an overdose within two weeks of their release compared to the general public.6 This underlines the role that health and human services can play in helping people survive and thrive as they reintegrate into society.
On May 25, 2022, to increase public trust and improve public safety by encouraging equitable and community-oriented policing, the Biden-Harris Administration issued the Executive Order on Promoting Effective and Responsible Policing and Criminal Justice Practices to Improve Public Trust and 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), the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), and the HHS Partnership Center hosted an incarceration reentry 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 skewed reality of navigating services for people reentering the community from incarceration . It elevated the challenges faced by many and generated ideas for HHS action consistent with the priorities of the Biden-Harris Administration.
Hope MacDonald Lone Tree, deputy commissioner for Native American Administration at ACF, opened the event with an overview of the scale of the criminal justice system, citing that about 5.5 million people are currently incarcerated or on parole . Rachel Pryor, Counsel to Secretary Becerra, shared the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to advancing effective and responsible policing and criminal justice reform policies. Comments highlighted the important work HHS is doing related to criminal justice reform, including:
Tasha Aikens, policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Justice, facilitated the reentry simulation. During this simulation, HHS staff were given false identities of people who were recently released from incarceration, along with basic information about demographics and current social circumstances. Participants completed activities typical of someone who has recently been released, such as obtaining a government ID, finding employment, maintaining community supervision requirements, and seeking substance use treatment. At the end of the simulation, most HHS staff were unable to complete many of the daily tasks required to maintain their livelihood after reentry and, as a result, experienced housing insecurity and were even re-incarcerated. HHS staff shared how this experience provided tremendous insight into the everyday challenges and barriers faced by those returning to their communities after incarceration.
The event concluded with a panel that provided insights from those who had lived experiences. The panel included Clinton Lacey, President and CEO of the Credible Messenger Mentoring Movement, John Bae and Angel Sanchez, DOJ Second Chance Fellows, and was moderated by Dr. Rev. Que English, Director of the HHS Partnership Center. Following the simulation and their personal experiences with reentry, the panel addressed what it takes for an individual’s success after leaving prison. Clinton Lacey explained that “…people come in [to carceral settings] often hurt, failed and neglected… and we know that inside things don’t get better… so they return home with unmet needs and with collateral consequences and barriers… overall, people have been greatly impacted and have fallen into oblivion, have been failed by a series of other care institutions when they reach the [justice] system.”
The expectations placed on those who return after being incarcerated can be quite onerous and almost impossible, as the simulation demonstrated. Ángel Sánchez commented that “if individuals are failing, these institutions should not be successful… incentives are often misaligned when their failure does not matter to these institutions, and worse, their failure is to guarantee employment opportunities and job security.” …so there’s no reason for empathy and all [those returning] They will depend on chance or charity. And we shouldn’t depend on chance or charity, we should want standardized success.”
The availability of services for returnees varies widely across the country. While some areas devote significant time and resources to developing specific services for those released under community supervision, other areas work to make the most of resources and more fragmented approaches to service delivery. Lacey argued that we need more than just a service model or approach, and “…there is a need to move from investments in and dependence on government systems and agencies to greater investment and dependence on the community, people, particularly people who have seen impacted, that they have a perspective, that they have experience, that they have solutions, that they have knowledge.” John Bae echoed this sentiment and reiterated that “…changing the process starts with reorienting our thinking about some of these reentry challenges. “Things like education, transportation, housing are not criminal justice issues, they are community issues…”
At the end of the conversation, 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, Sánchez highlighted that “…if we want to begin to change some of the inequalities, we need the people we serve to be empowered with pathways to that they could not only be cared for but also be the best at serving others.” This underscored Lacey’s call to move toward greater investment in people and “…moving from criminal justice to human justice…”
These words shared during the roundtable still have a strong impact on me today. They have inspired us at HHS to continue moving forward with reinvigorated energy in our work related to reentry, and I hope they inspire you to make similar efforts in your work. For a compiled list of reentry resources that could help you advance reentry efforts in your area, visit the Office of Minority Health. Reentry Resources Web Page. Those interested in learning more about hosting a reentry simulation in their area can contact Tasha Aikens at Tasha.Aikens2@usdoj.gov.
1 Sawyer, W., & Wagner, P. (2023, March 14). Mass incarceration: the whole 2023 pie. Prison policy initiative. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2023.html
2 Alper, M., Durose, M.R., and Markman, J. (2018). 2018 update on inmate 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 release from prison: 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. “Deaths associated with drugs and alcohol in US prisons”. Journal of Correctional Health Care 26, no. 2 (2020): 183-193.