Road to Redemption


words by Matt Coleman // from the April issue of 904 Magazine

Redemption and recovery. They don’t come easy for ex-offenders striving to return to normalcy after entering the prison system.

National studies show that 60 to 75 percent of ex-offenders can’t find work within a year of their release. In Florida, close to 30 percent will find themselves back behind cold-iron bars within three years of their last sentence.

The odds might be stacked against them, but there are a host of programs in Northeast Florida geared toward getting ex-offenders back on their feet through job and skills training, housing assistance and other support measures. And the economic impact of these re-entry programs isn’t reaped solely by those directly receiving the benefits. The entire community stands to gain from a reduced recidivism rate.

The Jacksonville Reentry Center (JREC) operated by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office boasts a recidivism rate of 17 percent for those who complete the program, more than 10 percent lower than the state’s overall numbers. At the same time, the Criminal Justice Estimating Conference estimated that 33,492 inmates will be released back to their communities in the 2014-2015 fiscal year. If that recidivism rate dipped to the JREC 17-percent level, the state would save up to $60 million in taxpayer money through the drop in incarceration costs, according to a Florida TaxWatch study.

However, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to reaching every ex-offender, says Director Tara Wildes of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Department of Corrections. JREC, for instance, starts at the early stages of incarceration. The three-month program begins by identifying Duval County residents serving felony sentences of at least six months who plan on returning to the county when they’re released. Some might be leaving incarceration to strong family support structures, while others might have served more than a decade behind bars and have no one to turn to. The key is to identify the needs of the individual—pairing high-school dropouts with GED programs and securing reliable housing options for potentially homeless ex-offenders upon release.

“We try to get these people hooked into the services they need as soon as possible,” Wildes says.

JREC re-entry specialists work with the incarcerated individuals during their sentence to develop a game plan for life after jail to ensure they don’t find themselves back in the same place after their release. That requires a multidisciplinary support system comprised of area nonprofits and service providers from the mental health, housing and faith-based communities.

One of those partners is Jacksonville-based Operation New Hope, a national leader for getting ex-offenders back on their feet. The nonprofit’s Ready4Work program, which offers a four-to-six week Career Development Training course, has more than 300 business partners in Northeast Florida that have hired more than 1,500 ex-offenders. Kevin Gay, the nonprofit’s president, says securing gainful employment for ex-offenders is one of the deciding factors when it comes to keeping them away from future run-ins with law enforcement. Ready4Work has a recidivism rate of less than 15 percent for program participants, a particularly proud statistic for Gay.

The work, however, doesn’t stop there. Operation New Hope’s newest program, Breaking the Cycle, shifts the focus on to the children of ex-offenders. A partnership with The Bridge of Northeast Florida Inc., Breaking the Cycle offers job skills and life skills training to children and their parents, as well as family counseling, to help maintain a stable home life even when a parent or relative is serving time in the corrections system. Long-term data for similar proactive programs isn’t readily available, but Gay says Operation New Hope is confident that redirecting a child’s path from a world marked by crime and incarceration to one of support and educational success will help youths avoid the same mistakes as their parents.

“Seven out of 10 are more likely to fall into the footsteps of their parents without some kind of help,” he says. “We’ve worked to bring all the agencies that work with youth in Jacksonville together to have a discussion about this at-risk population and illustrate the crisis. You take a breadwinner out of the picture for a family; it puts that family nucleus in crisis.”

There’s no simple dollar figure to attach to the success of re-entry programs, but experts agree that these support systems are a financial net positive for the community. A recent survey of 40 states by MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research organization, determined that it costs approximately $31,000 to incarcerate one person for a year. If you reduce the national state prison population by just 1 percent, or approximately 14,000 persons, there would be a savings of nearly $450 million.

Lt. Ruben Bryant, a Programs/Pretrial Services Unit Commander from JSO’s Department of Corrections, says a collaborative approach is the most successful to help keep ex-offenders on the straight and narrow. He regularly meets with mental health, substance abuse and housing representatives from area nonprofits and agencies to ensure resources are pooled, efforts aren’t being inefficiently replicated and there is a dedicated pipeline of services available for ex-offenders returning to Jacksonville’s neighborhoods.

He says he’s seen the positive impact of these intervention efforts during Project Dismas meetings. Named after a penitent thief from religious texts, Dismas is targeted toward high-risk offenders in the community. They regularly meet with law-enforcement officials, who speak openly about the challenges they’ll face and the services that are available to them.

Gay says Dismas the thief and others like him—former criminals who are looking to return to a more lawful path—should be supported as they regain their footing.

“Stepping in during those times of crisis for some of these people, when they’re struggling to do right, that is how you go upstream and really begin to preempt the problem.”