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Helping ex-offenders stay out of prison

Re-entry programs are key to keeping ex-offenders out of prison and turning them into productive citizens.

Every year, roughly 10,000 people leave prison and return to Baltimore City; 4,000 of them — 40 percent — will return to prison within three years. This must change.

The people least likely to go back to prison are those who participate in reentry programs, a cost-effective solution for adults who otherwise leave prison without the right plan and supports in place. In reentry, we work to rebuild lives that have been embedded in the "grinding poverty" cited by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. This requires commitment, resources and a deeply held belief that second chances are better than having no chance at all.

While Episcopal Community Services of Maryland has a successful track record of working with Baltimore's formerly incarcerated population, we need to constantly look for ways to do even more. Our Jericho Re-entry program has operated in East Baltimore since 2006, enrolling more than 1,500 returning citizens living in Baltimore City. Through successful partnerships with the state and other public and private funders we can offer services that provide men and women with the tools they need to rebuild their lives: drug treatment, job training opportunities, transitional housing, GED classes, weekly mentoring, transportation funding, work-appropriate clothing, legal support and assistance with job placement. Through Jericho, our clients get the tools they need to rebuild their lives.

But our work — and our successes — do not come easily. We, and others doing re-entry work, have to take a business focused approach:

We must be market driven. Certain jobs are more likely to hire our people. Construction, food service and manufacturing all provide a good path to employment for re-entrants; these are the most common entry level jobs for people who have been incarcerated. With a good work ethic and additional training, a person can move from a $9 an hour line cook position to a food service manager job with a potential annual salary of $48,000.

We must achieve returns on our investments through data-driven initiatives. Maryland spends $38,000 per incarcerated person each year while a reentry program like Jericho costs only $5,000 per individual, and arguably does more to rehabilitate a person. We help ex-offenders obtain legitimate employment and positive social networks while developing healthy daily routines. These are significant factors that boost employment, reduce recidivism and advance the economy overall by reducing the unemployment rate. Jericho participants have an employment rate of 72 percent and a recidivism rate of less than 6 percent.

We must continually improve. Businesses that don't change don't stay in business; nor should nonprofits like ours. We continually scan the horizon for best practices elsewhere that can inform what we do and help us do it better. We also are looking at lengthening the horizons by which we measure success. Current practice is to look at one-year evidence; we think a three-year gauge offers a more realistic measure of results and are moving in that direction.

In an ideal market, there would be no reentry. As we evaluate how to move forward we are now thinking about how to offer the right mix of skills and services — basic reading, math and computer literacy and job training tied to market demands — that can reach at-risk people before we incur the cost of incarcerating them.

As the state looks for ways to save money and make Baltimore City an economic engine, business driven programs like Jericho can reduce state spending and enhance investment in all of our citizens.

Success drives continued public investment and reduces costs for all of us.

Nancy Fenton is the executive director of Episcopal Community Services of Maryland. Her email is nfenton@ecsm.org.

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