How Data-Based Policies Can Help the Formerly Incarcerated Win a ‘Second Chance’

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One in three U.S. adults has been arrested by age 23. For the millions who have been in jail or prison, meaningful criminal justice reform initiatives could be coming.

In Tennessee, the governor convened the state’s Criminal Justice Investment Task Force to develop policies aimed at reducing recidivism and improving public safety. Kentucky has also taken major strides towards de-felonization, introducing two new laws to reduce the number of people convicted of felonies.

And Colorado is supporting prisoner reentry into society with a “Ban the Box” provision that removes the question, “Have you ever been convicted by a court?” from applications for employment, housing, public benefits, insurance, loans, and other services.

All are important moves toward lowering the violent crime rate and reducing recidivism, but these and nearly all states have a powerful opportunity to lower the recidivism rate even further and help justice-involved populations permanently transition back into society.

If they are fully committed to helping this marginalized population and lower crime, lawmakers across the country must embrace a data-driven approach to prisoner reentry and support legislation that addresses why repeat offenses occur.

High rates of recidivism are not unique to any one state or region.

Nationally, two out of three people are rearrested within three years after being released from prison and 50 percent are reincarcerated.

Lack of funding is not the issue either: In 2017, state and local governments spent a total of $79 billion on corrections. From a financial perspective, taxpayers and legislators should feel incentivized to lower recidivism rates, especially since the cost of a single recidivism event typically exceeds $150,000.

Recidivism is not only costly, but damaging to our society. Incarceration rates have increased 220 percent from 1980 to 2014, with 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in the U.S., often for reasons that could have been prevented if adequate policies and programs were in place to assist them with reentry.

Other states should take a page out of Tennessee, Kentucky and Colorado’s playbooks.

Tennessee, for example, recently passed a bill to keep lower-level drug-related and mental-health-related offenders out of prison and place them instead in community-based rehabilitation programs. The  measure will save the state an estimated $9 million a year.

Many formerly incarcerated individuals suffer mental and physical health issues, and compared with the average American, justice-involved persons suffer three times the rate of mental illness, four times the rate of substance abuse disorders, and up to nine times the rate of serious infectious diseases.

Access to healthcare remains a challenge, and treatment for substance abuse and other mental health disorders is expensive without insurance coverage.

Increasing access to Medicaid coverage could reduce the recidivism rate by up to 30 percent. Using data to track whether an individual has been released or reincarcerated could save states millions of dollars each year, both in Medicaid fees and the cost of recidivism due to lack of healthcare.

People with criminal records are often unable to get the proper help to reenter society, along with facing frequent discrimination because of their status, particularly when employers run a pre-employment background check during the hiring process.

Left without income or help, they often turn to illegal activities to support themselves, which perpetuates the cycle of poverty, crime and imprisonment. By improving equity in the workplace through “Ban the Box policies and other fair chance hiring initiatives, states can give formerly incarcerated people the chance to support themselves and contribute to society.

Fair chance hiring practices operate using tools such as continuous monitoring, which lowers barriers to employment while providing employers with the security of near real-time alerts of criminal activity among their workforce.

Enacting meaningful criminal justice reform has been a priority for many states over the years, and proposals like the ones introduced by Tennessee, Kentucky and Colorado are an important entry point into the issue.

Programs that ease prisoner reentry into society and legislation to help reduce discrimination against formerly incarcerated people will ensure lawmakers go a step further and make a greater impact on the rate of recidivism nationwide.

By taking a data-driven approach, states can save millions of dollars each year while improving the lives of countless Americans looking for a second chance.

The high rate of recidivism has long been the result of poor preparation and a lack of resources for justice-involved populations upon release.

Politicians and lawmakers dedicated to creating safe communities will find the greatest success by amplifying their existing efforts with aggressively forward-thinking measures and resources to help people reintegrate back into society.

Brian Matthews is the President of Appriss Insights, a company that uses data to reduce recidivism. He is currently working with Tennessee Medicaid providers to ensure that Medicaid eligible former prisoners have no lapse in healthcare coverage.

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