State needs to do more to prepare ex-inmates for success in the outside world.

Share story

The Times has been reporting on the premature release of prisoners from Washington prisons because of failures in the system. Some of those people committed new crimes, including one that resulted in a murder charge.

The system for releasing prisoners needs to be fixed, but what I kept thinking as I read the articles is that most prisoners eventually get out. And if they’re not prepared for life on the outside, time behind bars for some will have been an expensive way to delay more criminal behavior.

We need to make it more likely that people exiting prison have a good chance of living better, crime-free lives. Former prisoners would benefit, and so would those of us who don’t want to be victimized when someone turns to old ways.

Not long ago, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg put together a summit of people who looked at recidivism from a number of different perspectives and proposed ways to reduce it. I went back and looked at the report they produced in 2014, “Investing for No Return.”

This week, save 90% on digital access.

Each year about 7,000 people in Washington leave prison, Satterberg told me Wednesday, and as many as half wind up back behind bars within three years, most of those in the first year. And that doesn’t count people sentenced to jail rather than prison.

The report said that what former prisoners need to make it on the outside crime-free are some of the same things everyone else needs: safe housing, education, a job, stable mental health, and to be free of substance abuse. Former inmates might also need help navigating social networks and dealing with legal issues.

The report made a dozen recommendations, covering six categories of help: housing, transition, employment, treatment, education and family support.

I asked Satterberg where the recommendations stand, and he told me they haven’t gotten very far with state government.

Of the people released every year, he said, most have not had effective programs in prison. And when they come out, they may not have a place to live, and they’re denied licenses that would lead to decent jobs. “It’s no surprise we have a recidivism problem.”

Our Legislature even made it illegal for the state to fund higher education in prison, Satterberg said.

We should make a clear path for people to become productive, taxpaying citizens, he said. “It doesn’t take too many frustrations or too many doors slammed in your face before you go back to what you know.”

European prisons have success preparing people for re-entry, he said, but here that work is left to private efforts.

I’ve writtenabout one of the nonprofits he likes, the Post-Prison Education Program, which has had great success over the past decade helping former inmates rejoin the community leading positive, productive lives. Only one in 50 of the people they help reoffends.

That work should be built into the system, not an add-on provided by a nonprofit that can help only a tiny fraction of exiting prisoners.

Sure, punishment is a major goal of imprisonment, but ultimately helping people live better lives will benefit the individual and the community more.

The need to integrate former prisoners back into society is more and more recognized as a better approach to reducing crime than just jailing people for a time.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced this week a task force that will look for ways to reduce barriers to housing for people getting out of prison. Having a job helps, too.

In November, President Obama ordered most federal agencies to stop asking job applicants whether they have a criminal record at the start of the hiring process. They will still ask, but later, after the person has had a chance to make a case that he or she might be right for the job.

While the state is fixing its early-release problems, it should adopt a comprehensive program for making most releases successful for the former inmate and for the rest of us, too.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.