Increasing opportunity for returned citizens in the Big Apple (American Enterprise Institute)

By Elizabeth EnglishGerard Robinson

Education

Every year more than 650,000 men and women return to communities after serving time behind bars. Unfortunately for them and for society, almost one-third will be rearrested in their first year out, over half within three years, and over three-quarters within five years. In our effort to survey innovative programs that are working to increase opportunity and reduce recidivism for those in prison and those who have been formerly incarcerated, we travelled to New York City earlier this month.

To add to AEI’s growing body of work on prison education and reentry, we met with prisoners, returned citizens, and leaders in the nonprofit, business, and public sectors to discuss which models work; which do not work, and why; and what role government and civil society can play to reform our criminal justice system through increased educational opportunities and more fluid reentry programs.

A few highlights from our site visits and interviews included:

The Brennan Center for Justice is a non-partisan public policy organization that works on criminal justice reform. Specifically, some of their work as of late has focused on fines and fees affiliated with America’s criminal justice system. AEI came into contact with the Brennan Center at an event the two organizations co-hosted in April 2016 for reentry week. The panel held at the White House featured remarks from AEI president Arthur Brooks and Brennan Center president Michael Waldman. The conversation focused on how our criminal justice system is both a huge human and economic cost in the United States.

The Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) is a college program for men and women incarcerated in six of New York’s state prisons. BPI offers associate’s and bachelor’s degrees from Bard College, a liberal arts college located in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. BPI currently enrolls over 300 men and women. Over 60 courses are offered each semester in a range of subjects, including the humanities, languages, mathematics, and science. Each Bachelor’s student completes a year-long honors thesis that is evaluated by professors from the college. Started by executive director Max Kenner when he was a student at Bard College in 1999, BPI has grown to be the largest program of its kind in the country, expanding nationally through its Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison.

Today, it is active in 15 states and more than 20 prisons across the nation. The admissions process is rigorous – for example, out of 100-150 applicants at BPI’s program at Eastern NY Correctional Facility, approximately 50 are invited for an interview after completing a written essay exam. Out of those 50, only 15-20 are accepted. The recidivism rate is well below the national average of 50%, with less than 2.5% recidivism. Most important, graduates go on to careers at nonprofits, start businesses, and continue their education. Three of BPI’s graduates are currently pursuing PhDs and Master’s at Yale, Columbia, and New York University, while nearly 40 have completed degrees on the outside. Apart from offering rigorous college courses in prison, BPI also works with graduates to ensure they successfully reenter society. With a director of reentry on staff, BPI helps place graduates into work and internship opportunities; assists with housing, medical insurance, and other reentry necessities; and also provides comprehensive support for admissions and financial aid for continuing education.

The Fortune Society is a reentry organization in the heart of New York City whose mission is to “foster a world where all who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated will thrive as positive, contributing members of society.” Assisting returned citizens with both work placement and development, and offering living space for those needing it, Fortune Society has created a community of individuals engaged in quality and innovative programming to help reduce recidivism and increase opportunity. According to its webpage, Fortune Society’s programming helps participants avoid over 88,000 days in jail and prison in just one year. It also estimates that it saves the city and state of New York over $8 million annually.

The Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) is a nonprofit that places individuals recently-released from prison into work. Often directed to the program by probation officers, program participants are matched to jobs through CEO employees who gather information on participants and offer them work through contracts they obtain with the city and other employers. CEO participants are expected to show up to work every day, be on time, and are offered career development opportunities through the program like OHSA training. By connecting returned citizens to work as quickly as possible, CEO has helped reduce recidivism—evidenced in a 2012 evaluation by MDRC. Today, CEO has expanded to 15 locations across the country. As a data-driven organization, it tracks participants’ progress, coaches them in how to be successful in the workplace, and uses transitional job placement as a tool for participants to achieve full-time, long-term employment—a critical factor in reducing recidivism.

Maycomb Capital is an impact investing platform led by Andi Phillips, who was formerly the director of the Rikers Island social impact bond program as an investor at Goldman Sachs. Today, Maycomb Capital focuses on outcomes-based financing to encourage governments to use public-private partnerships to ensure projects and initiatives have their intended impact. While the Rikers program did not produce desired results, Phillips stressed the fact that it shut down when it failed to meet its performance metrics of reducing recidivism. Her lesson? Maybe reducing recidivism is the wrong metric to examine because it is often difficult to say what particular program components reduce recidivism. She suggested using school enrollment rates and other metrics as alternatives.

With its diverse population and economic success, the Big Apple provides a microcosm on what reentry can look like in urban America, and what challenges policymakers in Congress and state legislatures must address to ensure that returned citizens are able to leave prison as productive and law-abiding members of society. By opening opportunities for high-quality education inside prison, and providing services for those seeking a better life after their release, American government and civil society alike can reduce recidivism, save taxpayer dollars, and make communities safer and families more stable in the process.