By Richard Greenwald
Last year's federal stimulus package set aside $390 million in welfare funding for Pennsylvania. Astonishingly, at a time of high unemployment, the state Department of Public Welfare has been slow to use it, and Congress plans to end the program in September.
With a few months to go, state officials are finally beginning to work with communities across Pennsylvania to get this money to workers. They should use some of it to help Philadelphia's prisoner-reentry effort.
The city's goal is to ensure that ex-offenders successfully make the transition to living in the community again. Reentering prisoners need transition plans and access to services such as housing, health care, substance-abuse treatment, and family reunification. Most important, they need jobs.
There are more than 50,000 people in Pennsylvania's prisons, according to the Pew Center on the States. The commonwealth spends $1.84 billion a year on corrections, and little of that is spent on prisoners' transition back into their communities.
Given that 97 percent of those who go to prison get out, it behooves all of us to ease the transition for those coming back to Philadelphia. Nearly 40,000 people are released from incarceration to return to the city every year. And, startlingly, more than 60 percent of those who leave prison become repeat offenders, forcing the police to expend energy repeatedly arresting the same people.
We have to make investments to drive down recidivism and its impact on families and victims. Nothing is more important to that effort than jobs.
Quickly engaging formerly incarcerated people in work leads to lower incarceration rates and reduces crime. Philadelphia's Public/Private Ventures ran a prisoner-reentry program in 17 locations nationwide called Ready4Work. (I led a nonprofit that was part of that effort in 2005.) It emphasized work, including wage supplements, job retention, and mentoring.
Recidivism rates among the program's 5,000 participants were 34 to 50 percent below national averages. Similar work-focused programs in Indiana and New York City also decreased felony convictions and incarceration for new crimes.
Mayor Nutter has been right to make prisoner reentry a priority of his administration. Because getting people released from prison into jobs is paramount, he should make work the focus of his plan (on which I have consulted).
The mayor offered employers a significant tax credit for hiring ex-offenders (though his administration acknowledged this week that the credit had failed to attract interest and was recently revamped). The mayor has also enhanced Philadelphia's one-stop center for ex-offenders.
However, Nutter cannot succeed without support from the state, which should reserve a portion of the stimulus funding for ex-offenders' wages, job-retention support services, and administration of the effort. The money should help the city emphasize work for ex-offenders and encourage more employers to hire them.
The alternative is costly for everyone - the ex-offenders who fail to make a successful transition, and the communities that suffer from more crime and disruption.