Fred Davie

is the president of Philadelphia-based Public/Private Ventures

Prison populations have grown 55 percent in the last 10 years. Inmate health-care costs are up nearly 200 percent and housing costs have climbed 500 percent, according to a recent report from the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority.

To ease this burden to society, we need to spend more money on programs that help former inmates reenter our communities, rather then simply spending money on prisons.

There are approximately 32,000 releases from the Philadelphia Prison System annually, according to an Urban Institute study published last year. That number includes a large group of repeat offenders, who churn in and out of Philadelphia's local jails and county prison with disturbing regularity - at no small cost to the city as a whole and certainly to the families that are directly affected.

But there is hope. Community and faith-based organizations, local businesses, criminal justice agencies and public officials are working together to solve the prisoner-reentry crisis. At a recent White House event, Public/Private Ventures released findings from Ready4Work, a three-year, 17-site national demonstration that provided 4,500 returning prisoners, including those in Philadelphia, with employment-readiness training, job placement, mentoring and intensive case management (including referrals for housing, health care and drug treatment). Participants were, on average, 26 years old, and half had been arrested more than five times, most for nonviolent crimes.

When I was called to Washington to present our latest findings, I hoped to encourage lawmakers to support prisoner reentry as a solution to this country's growing incarceration crisis. It is crucial for federal, state and local leaders, including here in Philadelphia, to understand past reentry efforts: Some programs have had disappointing findings, but others, such as Ready4Work, have produced extremely promising results.

Ready4Work participants had recidivism rates 34 to 50 percent below the national average; 60 percent of the participants got jobs through the program, and one-third kept those jobs for six months or more. This success suggests several key lessons for policy makers in cities such as Philadelphia - cities that are grappling with overcrowded prisons and jails and alarming crime rates.

First, with the right kinds of support, former prisoners will work, and businesses will employ them.

Second, mentoring has an important role to play. Our research showed that participants who were mentored remained in the program longer, were twice as likely to obtain a job and were more likely to stay employed.

There are 2.2 million Americans behind bars in this country - disproportionately male, minority, undereducated and, most strikingly, from this nation's poorest neighborhoods. Most prisoners return to those already-struggling neighborhoods.

At an annual cost of about $4,500 per participant, programs such as Ready4Work cost a fraction of the $25,000 to $40,000 it takes to keep someone in prison for a year.

In Philadelphia, some reentry efforts already are under way, but more work is needed. It's time for leaders to recognize that investing in former inmates yields huge dividends - for the people trying to put their lives back together, for the communities to which they return and, indeed, for the nation.