The United States doesn’t have one “criminal justice system;” instead, we have thousands of federal, state, local, and tribal systems. Together, these systems hold almost 2 million people in 1,566 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,850 local jails, 1,510 juvenile correctional facilities, 186 immigration detention facilities, and 82 Indian country jails, as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.
Nationwide, over 600,000 incarcerated persons return to their communities from prison each year. This number will increase as President Biden takes the historic first steps of decriminalizing marijuana use by pardoning thousands of federally incarcerated people.
Given these statistics, we must focus on the importance of reentry programs to end the all-too-common cycle of arrest, incarceration, release, and re-arrest.
Our current system of mass incarceration has devastated many communities, particularly communities of color. A study by UCLA Law has noted that South Los Angeles has the highest concentration of parolees and people with conviction records in the nation.
About 35,000 formerly incarcerated people each year return on parole in Los Angeles County, with a disproportionate number returning to South Los Angeles. Many of these women, men, and youth incarcerated for non-violent crimes return home to face laws and policies that prevent them from gaining access to necessary resources to reenter society successfully.
Although reentry is an issue that impacts individuals across racial and ethnic groups, studies have shown that reentry is especially difficult for Black men and women. Black men and women face myriad barriers once they return to society after incarceration. These barriers include legal barriers that limit access to employment, housing, and social services.
Successful reentry programs must address these challenges, plus access to healthcare, skills development, mentorship, and social networks. Research has shown all these factors have the most significant impact on reentry success.
In addition, a recent RAND Corporation report states inmates released from California prisons have a high need for drug treatment, healthcare, and mental health services, which are often unavailable in the communities to which they return.
Securing and maintaining employment is a crucial step toward successful reintegration into the community. Meaningful employment opportunities that provide a livable wage can provide individuals with financial stability and a sense of purpose and productivity. For these reasons, the Los Angeles Urban League works with employer partners in “felon-friendly” industries such as construction and manufacturing, to name a few. For example, our Construction Career Academy prepares students to take and pass entry exams for union membership. Upon passing the entrance exam, we work with several firms to place the individuals in a new job.
Far too often, when formerly incarcerated individuals are released, they are given little or no government support or guidance in their efforts to find shelter, get a job, and earn an income. As a result, many feel like they are set up for failure and revert to a path toward crime.
We need to support and expand existing reentry programs to end this revolving door of mass incarceration. The need is greater than any one agency or organization can meet. Access to wrap-around services is an essential element for successful reintegration into society as well as the economic growth of our community. Breaking this cycle is vital for improving the lives of formerly incarcerated individuals and strengthening their families, and bringing prosperity to our communities.
The Los Angeles Urban League will continue to support our formerly incarcerated brothers and sisters and the reentry programs that help them in their journey.
Michael Lawson is president of the Los Angeles Urban League.