COMMENTARY: Re-entry reforms needed in Delaware

It started as an exercise, akin to a theatrical performance. Handed a script that described their new name and ages, lawmakers, attorneys, law enforcement and criminal justice advocates all took on the roles of Delawareans just released from prison.

It ended with all of us committed to repairing a system that is failing our residents at a time in their lives when failure means re-incarceration.

Coordinated by the U.S. Attorney’s Office at Delaware State University, this re-entry simulation challenged its participants to try to navigate society as an ex-offender. Various tables stationed around the university’s conference room created a pseudo-community with a pawn shop, social services building and counseling center, among others.

In these roles, policymakers, public defenders and police officers struggled with substance use issues. Others had no housing or job prospects. The feeling of total frustration and hopelessness was palpable as people trudged from table to table to find answers and a way forward.

You miss a bus. You run out of money. You miss a parole meeting. Maybe you couldn’t get an ID because the social services office was closed. So what do you do?

You fall into old habits to make ends meet, habits that could land you back behind bars. Nearly all the simulation participants ended up back in prison.

There was a common thread — we all were trying to find our way back home. However, we experienced firsthand how easy it is to trigger a tripwire and lose your footing on the way to success. Despite understanding the requirements of a probationer, there were landmines scattered along our paths, destroying our routes to freedom.

It is not shocking to see how more than two-thirds of ex-offenders will commit a crime and return to prison. The volume of people who recidivate is unacceptable — and it’s time to acknowledge that the system is failing our residents. Delawareans are being released without job training, birth certificates and other basic identification and tools necessary to readjust into society.

By investing in and reforming re-entry efforts, fewer Delawareans will be in prison, there will be fewer victims of crime and more ex-offenders will be taxpaying citizens. They will have better opportunities to gain equity by owning a home, securing a stable job and improving the quality of life for themselves and their families.

We also have the potential to save taxpayer dollars by reducing the burden on the criminal justice system. Currently, it costs around $36,000 annually

J.J. Johnson

to house each inmate. That money could be filtered back into the community.

Re-entry reform isn’t a “feel-good,” fluffy endeavor. It may take time and work, but this reform paves the way for positive change, not just for the ex-offenders, but for society as a whole.

We might have assumed their experiences, but ex-offenders have names, and they are not just characters in a play. After paying their debt to society, they should at least have the necessary tools to start the process of coming home successfully. They should be afforded the opportunity to rebuild their lives with dignity, not start the process 100 steps behind.

As legislators we could look to the federal Second Chance Act of 2007 for guidance, which was established to provide a comprehensive, holistic approach to a re-entry plan from the moment of admission through the months following release. The goal was to decrease recidivism and promote a successful transition to the community. The formation of the Individual Assessment, Discharge and Planning Team, which came out of this law, should be encouraged and used a tool to help combat recidivism.

We hope to work together in a bipartisan manner to enact substantial and sustainable improvements to the criminal justice system. Delaware deserves our best efforts.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Rep. James Johnson is a Democrat serving the 16th Representative District. Rep. Lyndon Yearick is a Republican serving the 34th Representative District.

This commentary is co-signed by House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, Rep. Paul Baumbach, Rep. Andria Bennett, Rep. Ruth Briggs King, Rep. Larry Mitchell, Rep. Michael Mulrooney and Rep. Kim Williams.

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