CHARLES O. OCHIE SR.: Reentry failure is to costly to communities

OPINION: Action must be taken to help released offenders successfully return to society

The failure of local communities to create and support effective reentry programs for thousands and/or millions of citizens returning from jails and prisons after years of incarceration has proven costly for these local communities. Every year, millions of people are released from incarceration and vast majority of them are released from local jails. Many state and federal government prisons are now releasing citizens into local communities after decades of massive incarceration that are no longer financially sustainable.

These annual releases have created unemployment nightmare for 65 million citizens. According to the official records, more than one in four U.S. adults — roughly 65 million people — have arrests and convictions records that show up in a routine criminal background check ( the effect of criminal background checks on these 65 million citizens is a topic of another day).

In Georgia, one in four adults has a criminal record and 20,000 Georgia citizens are being returned to local communities every year. Reports show that within this returning population, recidivism rates are high, resulting in a damaging cycle of incarceration, release and re-incarceration. It is well documented that recidivism harms local communities and places a tremendous burden on local governments trying to maintain safety and manage costs.

Evidently, the current situation of huge prisons and jail population, resulting from several decades of over and massive incarcerations of citizens, has become an economic nightmare and absolutely financially unsustainable hence States and Federal government as well as politicians across the nation are scrambling for solutions.

Unfortunately, the local communities are the first line of contacts by these returning citizens and regrettably bear the brunt of the problem. Local governments are known to spend over $100 billion every year on criminal justice and it is fair to predict that the return of thousands of these citizens into the communities will lead to an increase if effective reentry programs are not planned awaiting their arrival.

According to recent official analysis, the huge criminal justice expenditure reflects in part the cost of failure to integrate these individuals returning from our nation’s prisons and jails. By all accounts, these citizens upon return face serious problems that contribute to their commission of new crimes, including drugs and alcohol addition, mental illness, unemployment and homelessness and dislocated and strained family relationships just to mention of a few. It is believed that neglecting these issues not only raises criminal justice cost but increases the demand for social services such as homeless shelter beds and emergency transitional rooms. These may also create strain in the communities, hardship imposed on the families and social networks of released citizens.

It is believed that creating an effective and well-coordinated local reentry program with local solutions is what is needed to tackle the problem head on. Official reports reveal that a focus on local reentry initiative provides an opportunity for local governments to reduce recidivism and associated cost, and encourages jails, social service providers and other agencies to identify and address factors that increase the risk that these returning citizens will recidivate. The local reentry initiatives also should focus on changing the behavior of these returning citizens, by promoting accountability and helping to deploy limited local resources to reduce harm and maximize community benefits.

For the local reentry program to be successful, local elected officials and other stakeholders must play active role and are well positioned to help garner much needed support since they are the ones who not only appropriate public funds, but operate law enforcement, jail facilities, health and human services, housing authorities, workforce development boards, and local schools.

Non-profit organizations must be involved and some are already active in Albany, establishing Albany Second Chance, forming a Regional Reentry Coalition, Stop the Violence group, etc. The religious community must be brought on board. Their participation is crucial as these citizens returning from prison need healing. The business community must be willing to do their part. A lot of these returning citizens have multiple talents and are skilled in numerous technical areas. They should be hired and given a chance to earn a living so that they do not return to criminal life. And we can sure guarantee their return if we fold our arms and watch them reform themselves without our collective help.

Further, the policy pronouncements in recent weeks and months from Atlanta — Governor’s Office have been very encouraging. The Records Restriction laws passed last year by the Georgia Legislature was definitely a step in the right direction. The state can go further by encouraging to “Bend the Box” on job applications, which restricts ex-offenders applying for employment from ever having the opportunity to be interviewed because of the question on the application form asking them if they have been arrested or convicted of a crime.

Finally, it must be stated that this monster took several decades and billions of dollars to build and maintain. It may equally take time and lots of resources to dismantle. The one solution we know today that will work and will help to dismantle this monster is effective and well-coordinated local reentry program fully endorsed and supported by all local community stakeholders, including local government officials, criminal justice system officials, the business community, as well as the civic and religious community. Local governments and citizens of local communities will continue to bear the brunt of continuous recidivism of these returning citizens who will continue to re-offend because of lack of collective action.

Dr. Charles O. Ochie Sr. is the chair of the Department of Criminal Justice and Forensic Science at Albany State University and co-founder/president/CEO of Albany Second Chance.