Substance abuse. Minimal education. Rotten job prospects. Low confidence. Alienation from family.
Such are the typical challenges confronting the 5,000 inmates who exit prison and enter Marion County each year.
Mayor Greg Ballard wisely put a spotlight on the reintegration of ex-offenders into society when he created the city’s Office of Re-entry in 2008. The effort had piles of promise—to help some of our less fortunate brethren get back on their feet and contribute to our community, as well as to keep taxes down (jail time is expensive) and the crime rate under control. After all, more than half of ex-convicts land back in prison within three years.
But, as a page 1 story reports, the city’s re-entry initiative has fallen short.
The office has been plagued by a host of problems, including power struggles and infighting, which have led to high turnover in the director’s chair. Then there’s the poor organization, missed deadlines, botched events, lackluster participation in programs, and failure to harness the expertise both of a top-flight board and of a national foundation willing to lend support.
The office needs an overhaul. For starters:
• Put in place a visionary leader, with the clout, expertise and ability to get things done.
• Study best practices of similar efforts around the country, including the success of Workforce Inc., an Indianapolis organization that supports ex-offenders and puts them to work.
• Develop concrete goals, with an action plan for how to achieve them.
• Focus on the big picture: Use the prestige of the Mayor’s Office to publicly champion re-entry and channel community resources into programs to help ex-offenders, as well as removing government barriers and improving coordination among city offices and not-for-profits offering such services.
• Get the business community involved in mentoring and hiring ex-convicts. “The No. 1 protective factor from recidivism is sustainable employment that pays a livable wage,” Crystal Garcia, an assistant professor in IUPUI’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, told an IBJ reporter for a story last year. “If they’ve got that, they’ve got a chance.”
That story documented cases in which ex-offenders had earned the trust of their employers and launched successful careers. Indeed, because ex-offenders struggle to get a break, they are often especially eager to perform well.
Said one former Workforce Inc. trainee: “Everyone here has a conviction. And everyone here works.”
It’s time for the Office of Re-entry to work, too. Granted, it has some budding programs. But the agency has the potential to be a national model, and to provide a hefty payoff for Indianapolis’ strapped public safety system.
We salute Ballard for recognizing the importance of helping ex-offenders move into productive roles. But the move has been criticized as a mere “gesture.” The city should elevate this effort to the perfect gesture: a fair shake for ex-offenders and taxpayers.•
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