The Challenges that Impede Successful Reentry and Why Second Chances Matter 

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Each year, more than 400,000 Americans will be released from state and federal prisons, and more than seven million Americans will cycle into and out of jails with the hope that they will become contributing members of their communities when they return. But reentry is a complicated process with many challenges. 

Caitlin Dawkins, a principal technical assistance consultant at AIR, helped to develop the concept of Second Chance Month, with colleagues at Prison Fellowship. This work eventually led to the signing of a Presidential Proclamation in 2018, making it a national initiative. Dawkins is also a co-director of the National Reentry Resource Center, which is funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance and operated by AIR and numerous partners. In this Q&A, Dawkins explains why successful reentry is hard to measure and dispels some misconceptions around reentry.  

Q: What is the most common misconception about reentry?

Video: Learn what you can do to celebrate Second Chance Month in April and help give others a second chance.

Dawkins: First and foremost, incarceration does not mean that someone has committed a crime. Many people who are arrested are innocent, but will be held in jail until their trial dates. There are also innocent people in our prisons.

There is also a prevalent misconception that, once people leave prison or jail, it will be easy for them to reintegrate into their communities—that there is a plethora of opportunities for them. In fact, someone can leave jail or prison with every intention of contributing to their community, but find themselves impeded by endless legal and regulatory barriers. They might have trouble obtaining safe housing, occupational licenses, jobs, social services, and even educational opportunities. For those who have been incarcerated for a long time, there may also be a learning curve around technology and how to navigate everyday tasks.

All of this exacerbates the difficulties of reentering society. But when we provide people with opportunities, they are much likelier to transition successfully into their communities and reach their fullest potential. That positions them to productively contribute back, which, in turn, results in safer communities.

You can tell a lot about a society by the way they treat people in prison and those reentering their communities. Between increasing public awareness, recent policy and practice reforms, and major attention from the White House, I think there’s real hope right now for systemwide improvement.

Q: What does the evidence tell us about what people need for successful reentry into society?

Dawkins: The field is continuously evolving. Policymakers, practitioners, and other partners continue to learn what works, and how best to measure success amongst people reentering their communities.

In general, the literature consistently shows that housing, employment, family unification, mental and physical health treatment options, and other critical and basic needs are vital for successful reentry. Because of that, reentry intersects with many different fields: workforce, education, health, and more—each of which uses different metrics to measure success.

However, most programs in the reentry field measure success by recidivism. That means that they’re measuring success by failure, which isn’t the most effective metric. We know that rearrest can happen for reasons outside the person’s control, like over-policing, which typically occurs within Black communities. And that person may have succeeded in other aspects of reentry, like family reunification or employment. Would we consider that person to have successfully reentered? What is a fair measure of success?

Q: How do reentry challenges vary between youth and adults?

Reentry really starts at the point of contact with law enforcement. Everything that happens next—from the courts through incarceration—impacts a person’s ability to thrive when reentering their community.

Dawkins: For youth, the challenges of reentry are compounded by new and changing social expectations. They’re undergoing the natural bodily and emotional transitions of adolescence, but they also may face obstacles and trauma related to their family structures, poverty, and drug and alcohol use. It’s very likely that during their incarceration they received inadequate education and treatment services, which can disrupt positive youth development and their reentry experience in general. Incarceration itself is a traumatic experience. Many of them have not graduated from a school program, held a job, or lived independently, and most times they’re returning to disinvested communities where poverty, unemployment, homelessness, and substance use are endemic.

Reentry really starts at the point of contact with law enforcement. Everything that happens next—from the courts through incarceration—impacts a person’s ability to thrive when reentering their community. When prisons and jails have evidence-based programming to support parenting and provide educational and job training, that can make a difference in reentry outcomes.

The bottom line is that the justice system should ensure that youth and adults leave the justice system well-equipped for the challenges that they will face. Investments in justice reforms, grants, and reentry programs are critical to removing barriers and to promoting opportunities.