Prisoner re-entry guru Jeremy Travis was director of the National Institute of Justice in 1999 when his boss, Attorney General Janet Reno, asked a simple question: “What are we doing about all the people coming out of prison?,” Newsweek reports. No one had a clue, but the search for answers has spawned initiatives that may fundamentally alter how society deals with people who have served time. Some 656,000 or so emerge from prison every year; about two thirds of them end up behind bars again. Police Chief Edward Davis of Lowell, Ma, where crime had risen dramatically before the mid-1990s, adopted a new approach that entailed visiting each prisoner upon his or her release. The cops delivered a two-part message. One was a warning (“We are watching you”) and the other an offer to connect ex-prisoners with services to help them get on their feet. Lowell has seen a 60 percent drop in serious crimes.
Connecticut state Rep. Wlliam Dyson incorporated “justice reinvestment” ideas into a bill aimed at reducing prison overcrowding. Connecticut transferred $13.4 million from the budget for housing prisoners out of state into a range of programs and activities aimed at reducing recidivism. There is “a buzz about [re-entry],” says Travis, now president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco recently implemented measures to reduce discrimination against former inmates. President George W. Bush proposed an initiative in his 2004 State of the Union address. A so-called Second Chance Act is working its way through Congress.