625,000 Ex-Prisoners Will Need Skills, Jobs

625,000 ex-prisoners will need skills, jobs

Lynn A. Curtis and Paul Shepard

For a healthy slice of America, the past 20 years of "lock'em up and throw away the key" solutions to crime prevention and drug treatment have brought a warm feeling to some vengeful hearts.

Now, the chickens born of that mania are coming home to roost. As the first waves of a lost generation leave prison and returns to polite society, it's time for lawmakers to address the question that sits as inconspicuously as an elephant in a small room.

How can we reclaim these people?

The pressing nature of this question became clear with the release of a new report by the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C., prisoner advocacy group, which found that more than 625,000 prisoners will be dismissed from their cells this year. Their futures are not at all rosy.

Skilled workers are having a tough time in an economy so stagnant that college graduates are grateful for nonpaying internships.

These nonskilled ex-offenders are coming home to broken families and hyper-concentrated poverty. Most will return to the same cronies, broken windows and despair that helped lead them to incarceration in the first place. These former prisoners will face the loss of welfare benefits, the loss of access to student loans and the loss of voting privileges.

If there's a silver lining among the gray clouds, it is that there's a real, working blueprint for programs that could help the broken people who emerge from prison.

The Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation is a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization that replicates programs scientifically proven to lower prison recidivism, reduce crime and improve educational opportunities. It found an answer to recidivism in San Francisco.

There, Dr. Mimi Silbert and her nonprofit Delancey Street Foundation have enjoyed an unmatched success rate in turning former prisoners into productive members of society.

The program founded in 1971 has won hundreds of awards and praise from Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush - and even the Pope. At Delancey, a stylish building that covers a full square block, more than 500 former prisoners learn life management skills as they work as cooks, graphic artists and auto repair experts in shops run in the multi-store complex. They graduate after two years, but the average stay for a resident is four years. Four out of five of the hard-core felons who graduate from Delancey never see the inside of a prison again (60 percent of untrained ex-prisoners return to prison inside of three years). And more than 14,000 graduates have passed through their doors. All residents get high school equivalency training and acquire at least three marketable skills before graduating. In its 32 years, more than 10,000 residents have received high school equivalency diplomas.

Delancey is especially appealing to some because it does not continually draw either tax or insurance dollars. It is self-sufficient because of the business training enterprises it operates.

With a grant from the U.S. Bureau of Justice, the Delancey Street Foundation and the Eisenhower Foundation have begun to replicate the Delancey model in Virginia and Alaska. Talks are also under way to see whether local leaders would welcome a Delancey replication to serve Washington, D.C.

It's not as though Silbert and her staff have achieved this record of success without notice. There is barely a major national newspaper or television news program that hasn't featured Delancey Street as an effective tool in helping resettle ex-offenders. So here's the million-dollar question: Why aren't lawmakers beating down the doors of at Delancey Street with offers of aid and funding? Is it because of political cowardice? It is because the issue simply didn't hit their radar screens?

Policymakers better address the problem because bringing ex-prisoners into the mainstream may prove more critical than the get-tough-on-crime polices like "zero tolerance" that swelled American prison populations in the first place.

The Delancey program makes streets safer, cuts prison costs and creates tax-paying citizens.

At a time of exploding budget deficits, increasing crime and rising poverty, programs like Delancey Street present an opportunity even political cowards can't resist.

Curtis is president and CEO of the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation. Shepard is the foundation's director for communications.

İİ 2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.