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Society Must Address Recidivism, Officials Say

Society Must Address Recidivism, Officials Say
Cherry Short speaks at a two-day USC School of Social Work symposium on ways to improve the reentry process for U.S. prisoners.

Nearly 650,000 people are released from the nation’s prisons every year, and about nine million more are released from jails. Two-thirds of those who come out of prison are rearrested within three years of release.

Federal, state, community and faith-based leaders say these statistics indicate the individuals are not getting the services they need to ensure a successful transition back into their communities.

On Oct. 16-17, the USC School of Social Work, in conjunction with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, sponsored a symposium to bring together federal, state and community officials to discuss ways to improve the reentry process.

“The reentry debate is a meaningful one, especially considering that more than 27,000 inmates in California are set to be released. With few programs to help them, chances are they’re going to reoffend,” said Cherry Short, assistant dean of global and community initiatives at the USC School of Social Work and event organizer. “It’s a societal problem, not a prison problem. It affects all of us.”

Individuals serving time in prison face numerous challenges upon release that contribute to the failure of even a good-faith effort to change their lives for the better.

Eighty percent of federal prisoners report a history of drug or alcohol abuse, two-thirds of offenders do not have a high school diploma or equivalency degree, up to 16 percent have at least one serious mental disorder and 10 percent of those entering jail are homeless in the months before incarceration.

“This is one of the most important social issues of our time,” said Marilyn Flynn, dean of the USC School of Social Work.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas agreed with Flynn and added that so far, the system has failed to address it. All stakeholders need to come together to tackle the underlying problems that contribute to recidivism and help these individuals become productive, law-abiding citizens, he said.

“We need to work together,” Ridley-Thomas said. “If we don’t do that, we will continue the trend of the cycle of failure.”

Heidi Rummel, clinical assistant professor at the USC Gould School of Law, said in order to facilitate a better transition for those being released back into communities, corrections departments need to help inmates maintain that connection to their communities while they are incarcerated.

Rummel said it was “a shame” that the system makes it so difficult for inmates to stay connected with their families. This connection is vital, she added.

Many believe the biggest barrier to successful reentry is the lack of job training and available jobs for ex-offenders. Ironically, federal officials have long encouraged communities and businesses to give parolees a chance by giving them jobs, but many federal and state departments do not hire individuals with criminal backgrounds. This is beginning to change, according to Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill).

“If we don’t hire them, who’s going to do it?” Davis said during his keynote address. “We have to believe that redemption is possible.”

Other speakers and panelists included Audrey Collins, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California; civil rights attorney Connie Rice; Otis D. Wright, II, district judge for the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California; Chris Hansen, correspondent for Dateline NBC; and California Reps. Diane Watson, Laura Richardson and Judy Chu.

Other politicians, judges, law enforcement officials and educators were among the approximately 300 people who attended the symposium.

The Rev. Cecil Murray, adjunct professor at the USC School of Religion, said this problem is too big to go away on its own.

“At this particular time, we have 2.3 million people under lockdown,” he said. “We lead the industrial world in prison construction and prison confinement. America leads the world, California leads America.”

If leaders do not work together to break this cycle, the situation will be uncontrollable, Murray said.

“If we do not break through, we will break down.”

Society Must Address Recidivism, Officials Say

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