In summary

California lacks a comprehensive strategy to assist prisoners released during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving them and their communities vulnerable.

By Heather M. Harris

Heather M. Harris, co-author of “After Prison: Navigating Adulthood in the Shadow of the Justice System,” is a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, harris@ppic.org.

David J. Harding, Special to CalMatters

David J. Harding, co-author of “After Prison: Navigating Adulthood in the Shadow of the Justice System,” is a sociology professor at UC Berkeley, dharding@berkeley.edu.

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently vetoed Senate Bill 369, which would have created a commission to study prisoner reentry amid COVID-19. The bill could have addressed the urgent need to determine how to promote successful reentry during a public health emergency accompanied by a weak labor market. 

Currently, California lacks a comprehensive strategy to assist prisoners released during the pandemic, leaving them and their communities vulnerable to these unprecedented challenges.

As the authors of a recent book on prisoner reentry, we understand the challenges formerly incarcerated people face and can recommend policies to help them succeed. We studied 1,300 young men released from prison in Michigan, tracing their trajectories into adulthood over 10 years by examining their housing, employment, education, social support and criminal justice outcomes. Like those leaving California prisons today, these young men faced high unemployment rates and overwhelmed social services. 

The push to facilitate prisoners’ reentry comes at a crucial time in California. The prison population has fallen by more than 21,000 inmates since March. Continued overcrowding in 21 of 36 prisons is likely to prompt more early releases before the pandemic ends. These men and women will confront extraordinary social and economic circumstances. Although $15 million was recently allocated to aid 8,000 reentering prisoners, 13,000 still need assistance. Further investments in housing, education and substance abuse treatment are essential. 

Stable homes form the foundation of stable lives. After prison, young people typically live with older relatives. In California, most families’ budgets were strained before the exodus from metro areas geographically extended the state’s affordable housing crisis. Subsidizing families who house released prisoners could help create more stable homes for them and the formerly incarcerated. 

Released prisoners understand education increases upward mobility. Approximately one-quarter of the young men we studied enrolled in college after prison – most after struggling for years to find stable jobs. Removing restrictions on financial aid and providing grants that enable released prisoners to complete career technical education at community colleges can help the state increase released prisoners’ earnings and decrease projected shortages of qualified workers. 

Lack of opportunity and despair can send people spiraling into addiction – at deep personal and social cost. Approximately 3 in 5 U.S. prisoners are drug dependent. Our research shows that many who use drugs after prison continue on that pathway, putting them at higher risk of later violent offending. In addition to supporting prisoners as they enter challenging housing and labor markets, investing in evidence-based substance abuse treatment programs and targeting them efficiently can help protect public health and public safety.

In vetoing SB 369, the governor directed an interagency collaboration that could enable much-needed data collection. Our research relied on multi-agency data that required more than a decade and dozens of researchers to compile, clean and analyze. California lacks integrated administrative data systems that could facilitate the study of prisoner reentry and improve outcomes. In the future, legislators intent on studying reentry should consider requiring cross-cutting data collection. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has opened opportunities for prison reform in California that did not previously seem possible. To protect the health of prisoners and prison workers, thousands of inmates have been offered an early reprieve – but to a very uncertain future for which they, their families and their communities are likely unprepared. California should support these citizens and their communities or risk losing momentum toward criminal justice reform.