Delaware Program Seeks to Help Ex-Cons Adjust
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
Delaware will launch a prisoner reentry program next month aimed at reducing the number of former prisoners who commit new crimes and end up back in prison.
The three-year pilot program, created with a $2 million federal grant, could potentially save the state millions of dollars a year and reduce crime by helping ex-convicts receive the services they need to successfully re-enter society, state officials said.
The program will allow a small number of ex-convicts to work with one person instead of multiple agencies to receive services like housing, health care, job and skills training and substance abuse counseling. Most inmates do not know what services are available to them when they leave prison and must pursue them with little help.
State officials hope the pilot program will help them devise and expand more effective prisoner reentry programs that will reduce crime and save money.
"The main goal is to reform the corrections system to create a new system for offender reentry with all these agencies working together so the inmates will have a better chance of staying out of prison and successfully re-entering their communities," said Jack Kemp, a senior official of the state Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.
Reducing what is known as the recidivism rate has become a priority for states because an estimated 630,000 state prison inmates are released each year and nearly two-thirds are re-arrested for a new crime within three years, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).
In Delaware, more than 2,000 prison inmates are released each year. The state Department of Correction estimates four in 10 will commit crimes and end up back in prison within two years.
Delaware's program will target male and female prisoners age 18 to 35 who are considered most at risk of relapsing into criminal behavior once outside the prison walls.
Candidates will be selected 12-months prior to their release and paired with a single case manager who is in charge of implementing a court-approved individual management plan for the inmate.
Under the direction of the state Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, participating state agencies such as workforce development, education and social services, will work with the caseworker to provide the necessary services.
"The biggest obstacle we faced in creating this program was that the whole system wasn't coordinated," Kemp said. Having a single case manager should be a big help to offenders who now have to figure out how the system works on their own, he said.
Delaware received the grant from the Office of Justice Programs (OJP), which handed out $100 million in federal grants last July for reentry programs in all 50 states.
The federal money will be used mainly to design and evaluate pilot programs, which should begin operating in most states by the end of 2003 and will serve an average of 300 ex-convicts per state by the end of the three-year trial, officials said.
"There's a growing realization that more and more offenders are released from prison each year coupled with high recidivism rates, which means that many offenders are being released and going back to their communities without any type of guidance and training," said Adam Spector, spokesperson for the federal Office of Justice Programs (OJP), the agency overseeing the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative grants.
Other states' programs will be similar to Delaware's in that they will be implemented in three phases established by OJP, Spector said.
First, efforts should start in prison to prepare inmates for their release, such as job training, education or mental health and substance abuse treatment, Spector said.
Second, inmates should be released under close supervision and according to a specific plan that gives them access to community-based transition programs that will help them find housing and jobs, he said.
And third, long term support should be provided through community-based and social service agencies once the former prisoners leave the supervision of the justice system.
Efforts to reduce recidivism rates reflect a shift in corrections thinking toward helping ex-convicts succeed so they don't end up back in prison, said Jeremy Travis, a researcher who tracks reentry issues for the Urban Institute, a non-profit research organization based in Washington, D.C.
The Urban Institute has been hired by OJP to evaluate the effectiveness of state pilot programs.
"In corrections, most people thought running a safe prison was the end of their responsibility, but now there's more attention being paid to the impacts of the flow of people in and out of prison on communities. What's happening here is corrections is expanding it's mission, which is all for the good," Travis said.
Cash strapped states are also looking for less expensive ways to manage their prison populations, which have increased dramatically since tougher drug laws and mandatory minimum sentences were imposed in the 1980s and 1990s, Travis said.
The BJS estimates it costs states about $24,500 a year to house a prisoner. The number of people incarcerated in state, local and federal prisons reached an all time high last year of 2.2 million.