Life After Incarceration: What New Research from Harvard Says About the Impact of the Criminal Justice System

Each year, 600,000 men and women nationwide return from prison to low-income, inner-city communities. Harlem, in particular, has a high number of individuals who have either experienced incarceration themselves or know someone who has, according to recent data.

To consider the challenges these formerly incarcerated individuals face when they return home, the Charles Koch Foundation, along with the J.C. Flowers Foundation and the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, brought together distinguished criminal justice experts.

The event, “Returning Home, Rebuilding Lives” highlighted new research on New York and Boston from sociologist Bruce Western, the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice Policy at Harvard University. Among the topics discussed was how New York City neighborhoods can provide support to formerly incarcerated individuals and their families, who often also face significant emotional, physical, and financial challenges.

“This is a very august panel and a very august audience,” moderator Vikrant Reddy, senior research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute, noted of the packed room at the Harvard Club of New York. “A lot of us work on keeping individuals out of prison. That said, some are going to go to prison. At that point, we all have an interest—moral interest, public safety interest—to figure out how to prevent them from recidivism.”

Speaking on why he felt compelled to study the societal re-integration of the formerly incarcerated, Western explained that while policy conversations on the topic can be complex, “it’s an aspiration to look to integration, to draw people back into communities rather than exclude them, especially as we look at criminal justice policy in the U.S. … We need to think just as much about addressing incarceration itself as we do the re-entry policy.”

Howard Husock, vice president of research and publications at the Manhattan Institute, echoed the sentiment: “There has to be a discussion on formal policy changes and deliberation. One of the issues is the formal reintegration process itself; this is a stream of spending that, if well-directed, could be much more effective.” For Husock, policy prescriptions are the most effective method of addressing integration. “Empathy alone is not going to get us where we need to go,” he contended. “We need to ensure [restored citizens returning to society] are prepared.”

The broken system and its lack of effectiveness had a personal impact on Thomas Edwards, community engagement manager of Circles of Support Harlem, who spoke candidly about his own re-integration process after incarceration. “Crime is a subculture. [As a child,] there were no social workers on the street for me at three a.m. I was going in and out of institutions—I was a victim long before I was a criminal. I had no faith in the system, so I lived outside the system.”

Comparing his experiences before and after incarceration, Edwards remarked that he “saw systems that actually broke down families, not built them up.” He advocated for increased support for the formerly incarcerated through housing, mental health care, and employment: “People who have an ability to make a difference, step up.”

Chantá Parker, program team leader at the Essie Justice Group, also focused on the lack of support for the formerly incarcerated and their families. “Women are often asked, ‘How can you love someone that’s bad?’” Parker explained. “But one in four women have a loved one in prison. For black women, that number becomes one in two women. … A lot of women feel the burden of stigma, but behind every person returning from prison is a family bearing the weight of incarceration, too.”

Western, in turn, highlighted how the impact of incarceration could differ by race, noting higher levels of family support among formerly incarcerated black Americans than their white counterparts. “Black incarceration is different from white incarceration,” he said. “The kinds of inequality, the kinds of poverty, the kinds of support required from family and the social safety net were different for formerly incarcerated African Americans compared to whites.”

Referring to his latest research, Western pointed out that one of the unexpected findings of his re-entry study was the prevalence of a history of victimization among those who would later serve time in prison, regardless of demographic variables. “You couldn’t draw this bright distinction between victims and offenders,” Western said, noting the “heavy biography” of many of the formerly incarcerated who themselves had long histories of trauma and victimization. “It changes the ethical question as we think about the role of punishment in the criminal justice system.”

“Incarceration is fundamentally disruptive,” he concluded, “and there needs to be serious readjustment to how we view life after incarceration.”

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