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November 29, 2007
The Right Way to Handle Former Inmates

To control recidivism, and thus have a shot at controlling prison crowding and costs, the states and localities need to develop comprehensive programs that help former inmates find jobs, housing, training, drug treatment and mental health care. A promising model has emerged in Brooklyn, where District Attorney Charles Hynes started his re-entry program long before other jurisdictions even realized they were necessary.

Created in 1999 in Brooklyn, ComAlert was recently the subject of a state-funded study carried out by the district attorney's office in collaboration with Bruce Western of Harvard, a sociologist and criminal justice expert. The program is still evolving and is far from perfect. But the study shows that former inmates are more likely to get jobs and keep jobs -- and more likely to remain out of jail -- if they undergo a rigorous regime of counseling and drug treatment while participating in a companion program that offers them immediate work experience and job training.

Drug treatment, counseling and drug testing are cornerstones of the ComAlert program. In addition to being counseled and tested, participants are also encouraged to sign up with Ready, Willing & Able, a highly regarded work and training program offered by The Doe Fund, a nonprofit organization in New York.

Many of those who join the program have little or no experience with the world of work. They begin to get that experience by working full time in low-skill jobs like street cleaning, which pays between $7.40 and $8.15 per hour. Most participants are eventually moved into vocational programs where they are trained in one of several areas, including food preparation, pest control, office services and building management. They are often referred to jobs at companies that have longstanding relationships with the program.

According to the report, ComAlert graduates are less likely be re-arrested after leaving prison and much more likely to be employed than either program dropouts or members of the control group. Participants who complete The Doe Fund work-training component do even better. They have an employment rate of about 90 percent, somewhat higher than the ComAlert graduates generally and several times higher than the control group.

These results are quite promising, but more research will be needed to bear them out fully. Beyond that, the ComAlert team will need to find ways to lower the combined dropout and failure rate, which is nearly 46 percent. These issues aside, the program is clearly headed in the right direction and deserves to be expanded and emulated elsewhere. It represents an impressive start toward the goal of helping newly released inmates forge viable lives on the outside.    


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