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Published: Wednesday, 7/3/2013

Revolving door

In Ohio, state and local re-entry programs are helping more ex-offenders succeed and stay out of prison

Prisons are often said — somewhat inaccurately — to operate revolving doors: Offenders serve their sentences, get out, commit new crimes, and return to prison. The analogy ignores success stories that never make the news.

Still, 40 percent or more of the 700,000 inmates who are released each year nationwide eventually go back to prison. Some committed new crimes; others returned for violating parole conditions.

Either way, the costs of recidivism are enormous. In Ohio, every person who returns to prison costs taxpayers about $25,000 a year. In many other states, the costs are far higher.

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Ohio has emerged as a national leader in helping those who leave prison succeed and stay out. Further progress will require even stronger community partnerships with Ohio’s Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC).

It also will require further changes in the department’s culture. Corrections officers inside Ohio’s prisons must view themselves as part of a continuum that includes the successful return of inmates to their communities.

Ohio’s recidivism rate, calculated over three years, dropped to a record low of 28.7 percent last year, compared to nearly 40 percent a decade ago, JoEllen Smith of the DRC told The Blade’s editorial page. The state’s 28 prisons release more than 22,500 inmates a year.

The department can take credit for much of that success. Director Gary Mohr has made reducing recidivism a core part of the department’s mission.

The state now determines a prisoner’s needs during the first year of incarceration, and follows up that assessment with appropriate programs. All offenders leave prison with an official identification document, said Edward Rhine, deputy director of the office of offender re-entry.

A network of local re-entry coalitions — which may include job, family service, and criminal justice representatives — covers most of Ohio. More than 50 counties have such grass-roots coalitions, but all 88 counties need them.

Local re-entry coalitions have created “welcome home” videos that provide newly released ex-offenders with a guide to local resources. They also sponsor job fairs, provide legal services, and organize support groups.

Grants from the federal Second Chance Act help pay for these low-cost but effective efforts. Second Chance poured more than $10 million into Ohio between 2009 and 2011.

State lawmakers have helped by passing a collateral sanctions bill that eliminated certain employment barriers for ex-offenders. Legislators also, prudently, approved sentencing reforms that expanded earned good-time credits.

More than 95 percent of the nation’s 2 million prisoners, including nearly 50,000 inmates in Ohio, will eventually go home. Often returning to poor neighborhoods, they face enormous obstacles in securing housing, employment, education, and, if necessary, mental health and substance abuse treatment.

In Ohio, state and local re-entry efforts help to ensure that more ex-prisoners work, support their families, pay taxes, and become productive citizens. Still, even the best efforts by government will fail if private employers won’t hire ex-offenders or landlords won’t rent to them.

Ohio can continue to lower the state’s recidivism rate — but only if prisoner re-entry and safe communities become everyone’s responsibility.

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