This post is about 100 words and can be read in about 5 minutes.
Everybody wants a world in which there is less crime. That is why rehabilitation is one of the main official purposes of the criminal justice system. However people being released from jail or prison often do not get the help they need to address the issues that lead them to commit a crime in the first place. The result can be a vicious cycle of repeated arrests, longer sentences, and worsening problems leading to more crime, all at a huge cost to the people involved, their loved ones, and to Canadian society generally. Or, as shown by recent Canadian data, it can lead to premature death as a result of homelessness and addiction.
A 2016 report by John Howard Ontario provides a thorough discussion of the main steps that could be taken to reduce re-offending through better supports. As the report notes, “Addressing the complex needs of releasees through effective programs, services and practices is crucial for successful reintegration”, leading to very large reductions in re-arrest or re-conviction – as much as 40% in some studies.
Since there are an estimated 3-4 million people in Canada with a criminal record (astoundingly, nobody knows the real number) – about one in 8 adults – this is no small problem.
The most important single element in doing better is effective planning before people are discharged. That is, prior to release there should be a clear plan, made with the person being released, that addresses the most important needs of each person exiting a jail. Among these are housing, employment and education, assistance with physical or mental health issues including addiction, and connections with family and friends.
Many people being released from jail are essentially homeless. A 2010 study by the John Howard Society of Toronto determined that 40 percent of adult males released from Toronto jails were either homeless—defined as staying at a public homeless shelter, a treatment centre, a friend’s residence, or on the street—or at an increased risk of becoming homeless at release. Other studies have found similar rates in other places.
One reason these rates are so high is that people can lose their housing while locked up – because, for example, they are unable to pay their rent or even unable to contact landlords or dispute eviction notices.
Employment and education
It’s long been known that a large proportion of people being jailed are either unemployed or have only casual and poorly paid employment. Many people who did have work will lose it as a result of being jailed. They may also lose access to the people and networks they used to use to find work. Worse, having a criminal record makes it much harder to find work after release, and leads to lower wages even when working. More and more employers do criminal record checks at the time of hiring and simply reject anyone with a record regardless of their other skills or qualifications. This even though police record checks have not been found to be effective at predicting future criminal behaviour in the workplace. People with records are forced to accept jobs with low wages and poor working conditions.
At the same time, jails do little or nothing to help individuals find work, even though having a job is often a condition of parole or probation. As shown in an earlier post, provision of education and training, which are very important to employment, are often poor or entirely lacking in Canadian jails. So it’s no surprise that people being released aren’t doing well in finding work. Many studies have shown that individuals reintegrating back into society after prison have relatively low employment rates. They also earn significantly less than other workers with comparable demographic characteristics. Yet research has also found that re-offending is reduced only when people have reasonable jobs with reasonable pay.
Physical and mental health
Physical and mental health and addiction issues are often major barriers to finding and keeping employment. A large number of people have such issues, and their problems often get worse while locked up due to lack of appropriate care or treatment. Incarcerated women are especially likely to suffer from such problems, as are many Aboriginal people who are jailed. Yet as shown in an earlier post, these are precisely the people who are most likely to have trouble getting health services once released. Using jail to treat health problems is both very expensive and mostly ineffective.
Family connections and social supports
Strong family ties and good social supports are among the most important factors associated with less crime. However time in jail often hurts these relationships. Visiting is always difficult, and sometimes impossible due to distance and transportation difficulties. The focus on security in most jails makes visitors also feel like criminals. Visits are often cancelled due to lockdowns. Many visits are only behind glass, and may be limited to a short time. Bringing children to a jail can be traumatic even though contact between parents and children is so important. Phone calls are very expensive – far more than anyone pays in the community. Even letters are controlled in terms of what can be included. For anyone with a long sentence, maintaining ties is extremely difficult, but there are challenges even for those serving short sentences.
The report also discusses the important role of stigma. People with a criminal record often feel deeply ashamed, and are highly aware that others will think less of them for their actions. “Imagine having to begin every job interview by describing the event in your life that you are most ashamed of. Or by recounting the worst thing you have done.” Shame makes people less likely to reach out for help or to look for opportunities, which of course makes everything else harder.
All these barriers are also mutually reinforcing. Lack of housing and employment make other problems worse and vice versa, so people can find themselves in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Parole and probation conditions may exacerbate these problems.
Individuals released from prison are expected to turn their lives around, but face many barriers that make it harder to do so. The barriers can lead to diminished self-worth, disillusionment and a sense of hopelessness and futility which may in turn lead to further criminal activity. The lesson for public policy is that if we do not help people manage these challenges they and we will both pay. A number of voluntary organizations do great work in this field and provide excellent services, but there are not enough services to meet the demand. It makes no sense to spend huge amounts of money locking people up for their actions while we fail to spend much smaller amounts to prevent those actions in the first place.