Why Reentry Programs? Why Now?

Houston Chronicle

By Brooke A. Lewis and Maggie Gordon

After decades of putting more and more people behind bars, the U.S. now has the world's highest incarceration rate: Though it's home to less than 5 percent of the world's population, it accounts for roughly 25 percent of people in jail and prison.

And that, both Republicans and Democrats recognize, is a big, fat societal problem. It's expensive to lock up criminals: Texas spends more than $18,000 a year per inmate. And for the inmate and his or her family, the emotional and financial fallout can last long after the first sentence. Former inmates, finding it hard to make it on the outside, tend to cycle in and out of lockup. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 2005 and 2010, about two-thirds of people released from prison were arrested for a new crime within three years.

In recent years, legislators have pushed "re-entry" programs aimed at breaking the cycle of incarceration, often using a combination of things like cognitive behavior therapy, job assistance and drug rehab. Under the Obama administration, the federal government has issued more than 700 grants re-entry programs.

Harris County Jail's suite of re-entry programs — for veterans, mothers, drug addicts, and transgender people — is unusual: Most re-entry programs are in state and federal prisons, not jails. The difference is significant. In prisons, convicted criminals are locked up for extended periods of time. Jails, on the other hand, are often seen as temporary holding tanks; for the roughly 90,000 inmates who pass through the Harris County Jail each year, the average stay is only around 72 hours.

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