The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 28, 2016

During Reentry Week, remember the people coming back from local jails

In the United States, there are 11.4 million admissions to jail each year. Nearly all of these jailed individuals will return to the community within a short time. Reentry, the term used to describe this transition from jail and prison to society, poses numerous difficulties, ranging from a lack of shelter and employment to unmet health care needs.

The Justice Department’s launch of National Reentry Week shows how central reentry has become to the national policy conversation. It is particularly encouraging to see the role of local jails spotlighted in Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s National Reentry Week announcement because discussions about reentry often focus solely on prisons. But in fact, most people who are incarcerated each year are held in jails.

Returning from jail presents different challenges than returning from prison. Those in prison have been convicted of crimes and are serving their sentences, but nearly two-thirds of individuals in jail are pretrial detainees.

As a result, nearly 60 percent of the national jail population turns over each week. Less than 20 percent of jail admissions result in a stay of a month or more. These short stints in jail disrupt lives and cause negative consequences for those detained, their families, and their communities.

The complicated realities of jail reentry require a specific knowledge and practice base. Urban has led efforts to develop both, starting with the Jail Reentry Roundtable in 2006, which addressed the knowledge gap about jail reentry issues. Since then, Urban has partnered with the National Institute of Corrections on the Transition from Jail to the Community (TJC) Initiative to develop and test a comprehensive model for jail reentry in 14 diverse jurisdictions across the country.

These efforts identified serious challenges but also unique opportunities. Jail reentry is difficult because there is a limited window of opportunity for service delivery before release—delivery that requires prompt assessment of someone’s strengths and needs and the ability to quickly link to local services outside of the jail’s walls.

On the plus side, jails, unlike prisons, are often located near where people reside before and after their incarceration. That means jails are typically much closer to the social services, families, and support systems available to people walking out the door.

Partnerships between jails and local communities have demonstrated tremendous creativity, serving as innovation labs for reentry and local justice practice to reduce overincarceration, decrease recidivism, and transform lives. These models have been developed all over the country and tested in the 14  TJC jurisdictions, in the localities participating in the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge,  among the local Second Chance Act grantees, and in jails that are pioneering efforts to enroll people in Medicaid.

Comprehensive jail reentry approaches like these can work. For example, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania’s efforts to use enhanced reentry services with objective decisionmaking tools, coordinated reentry planning, and family engagement reduced the likelihood of rearrest and prolonged the time to future arrests.

Though high turnover and short stays make providing reentry services hard for jails, these issues are not insurmountable. Many jails are making great strides to ensure the success of individuals leaving their facilities by partnering with public agencies, community-based organizations, and families. When jails and communities work together to support returning individuals, jail reentry can be done effectively, improving the chances for those who touch these programs.

Alfred Taylor, 61, watches television at the Leighton house on January 20, 2012 in Los Angeles. The Partnership for Re-Entry Program rents the house to parolees and seeks to improve their re-integration into society. Photo by Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

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