Inmate Reentry

September 08, 2013
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Reduced Expenditures Not Likley

Successful reduction of the prison population will require social services, community wide involvement and a functioning mental health system to prevent societal rifts. All are essential and little is in place adequate to address  the size of reentry planned.

 

Reentry programs

Failure to invest in programs with demonstrated track records of success will truly be penny wise from decreased prison populations and very foolish from negative community impact. Most of the rarely released prisoners will not become employed, tax-paying, productive individuals without transitional help. Opening the jailhouse door solves the prison expense while placing more pressure on public health and safety. High rates of recidivism, more crime and more victims are anticipated results if the transition to the community is not supported.

 

Before the recession Nicholas Freudenberg did and excellent review of the fundamental problems and intervenations to improve the well-being of those reentering society from jail. Given the nation-wide effort to reduce prison populations and associated expense will not yield the anticipated savings and are likely to result in numerous other unintended consequences that will further tax our diminished social safety net. Failure to address these reentry problems is likely to create a wave of public health and public safety and budget problems in the community where those leaving jails live. Almost 10 years ago Freudenberg opined that we had about a decade to establish incremental alternative strategies that would reduce recidivism and decrease the negative impact on the communities to which they return. It is time for both a community engagement and stakeholder discussion on this topic.

 

National Reentry Resource Center exists at the federal level to “provides education, training, and technical assistance to states, tribes, territories, local governments, service providers, non-profit organizations, and corrections institutions working on prisoner reentry.” The difficult work is at the state and community level where these reentering individuals will reside.

 

Mental Health in America

The increasing involvement of persons with mental health and substance use conditions in the criminal justice system has enormous fiscal, public safety, health and human costs. Prisons have been used to warehouse individuals with mental health issues as the US has failed to develop a comprehensive and functioning mental health system. Research has documented that for years there are many more seriously mentally ill people in jail than in hospitals. In 1955 there was one psychiatric bed for every 300 Americans. By 2005 there was one bed for every 3,000 Americans. While much deinstitutionalization was made possible through the use of psychotropic medications, the community mental health system that was to have provided the safety net for mentally ill persons has largely not materialized.

 

 

Bureau of Justice Statistics consistently report that about 60% of inmates have mental health problems. The current drive to reduce incarceration numbers to save money will put large numbers of people with mental health problems back into communities with no support systems in place and result in negative impact. The unusual individual will create a media event of senseless violence and return to the justice system. Many others will fail to get any treatment, swell the ranks of the unemployed and homeless populations and come into conflict with law enforcers. Saving money by reducing prison populations is a false promise. Reducing prison populations without dealing directly with mental health problems that a majority the prison population will tear at the fabric of community and again fail those with mental problems. The failure of America’s mental health system will once again be on the streets, now they will have criminal records to add to their already difficult and stigmatized existence. A corresponding focus on mental health services is desperately needed. With the warehouseing of mentally ill inmates going away, there is the opportunity for real improvement. Societal and community pressure can provide the will for action.

 

Diversion courts

There is a way to reduce the numbes of people with mental problems coming into conflict with the justice system. To start with we must divert individuals with mental and substance use conditions away from jails and prisons and toward more appropriate and culturally competent community-based mental health care has emerged as an important component of national, state and local strategies to provide effective mental health care; to enhance public safety by making jail and prison space available for violent offenders; to provide judges and prosecutors with alternatives to incarceration; to provide specialty training to law enforcement and probation personnel to deal effectively with mental health and substance use issues; and to reduce the social cost of providing inappropriate mental health services or no services at all. The success of diversion programs in communities across the country is generating genuine excitement and hope that real progress can be made in meeting the challenge of criminalization and reducing the toll it exacts on these individuals, their families, service agencies and the criminal justice system.

 

These are not cheap fixes. But surely they are worth investment.


  
  

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