Based on trends, in three years, 67 percent of individuals released from U.S. prisons today will be right back where they started, according to the National Institute of Justice.

[pullquote]Recidivism refers to a person’s relapse into criminal behavior, often after the person receives sanctions or undergoes intervention for a previous crime.[/pullquote]

Locally, San Diego leaders are working to decrease recidivism throughout the county, and help formerly incarcerated individuals become productive members in our communities.

In an effort to raise awareness about the challenges prisoners face upon re-entry to society, the Malin Burnham Center for Civic Engagement at The San Diego Foundation recently hosted the San Diego premiere of the documentary Beyond the Wall. The film humanizes criminal justice system statistics with real life stories about what life is like for those previously incarcerated when they return home.

Reducing Recidivism: A Community Conversation

More than 150 San Diegans from diverse backgrounds came together at the Museum of Photographic Arts to watch Beyond the Wall and to engage in community conversation.

Following the film, Dana Littlefield, an editor at The San Diego Union-Tribune who spent 13 years as a courts reporter, moderated a panel discussion with local experts sharing their insights on re-entry and recidivism.

“When we’re talking about reducing recidivism, we’re talking about changing behavior,” noted panelist Mack Jenkins, Senior Policy Advisor for the Council of State Governments Justice Center and former San Diego County Chief of Probation.

He continued, “We need to identify the behavior we are seeing… and how we can change that behavior so that they’re no longer hurting other people, [but] instead putting themselves in the best position to provide for others and enjoy their lives.”

As the Center for Civic Engagement has explored root challenges of recidivism, employment and education have been highlighted continuously as two of the most significant challenges facing individuals released from prison.

Formerly incarcerated himself, panelist Robert Smith could speak first-hand about the importance of jobs and education during the re-entry period.

“As a person comes home, and I speak from experience, you rely primarily on your family. You’re coming home to stressed economic situations,” stated Smith, now the San Diego County Director for the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), an organization that offers comprehensive employment services exclusively for people with criminal records.

Smith shared, “By being able to come out, get a job, start working and be a contributing member to a family and community, you’re not just restoring their ability to earn income, you’re providing them with a platform – a dignified sense of, ‘I am doing good’.”

Many local organizations like CEO offer programs to help individuals with career readiness and employment while they’re in-and-out of prison.

San Diego Workforce Partnership (SDWP) CEO Peter Callstrom, for example, spoke about the success of the SDWP Reentry Works San Diego program. As part of the program, SDWP established career centers in local incarceration facilities and helped inmates with resumes, interview skills, attire and real-world preparation.

“Our goal with the program was to [reduce recidivism rates] to 22 percent, which was aspirational,” Callstrom explained. “After two years and 800 [participants], the recidivism rate is 11 percent. It’s working. It’s really promising.”

Turn Information into Action

The discussion following the screening on re-entry and recidivism helped promote community understanding, champion civic engagement and identify opportunities for action to advance quality of life for San Diegans.

How can you provide support to previously incarcerated community members as they re-enter society?

  • Watch Beyond the Wall and share key learnings with your friends and networks
  • Ask if your employer is welcoming to formerly incarcerated individuals by “banning the box”, or in other ways
  • Volunteer at a CEO clean-up project to help formerly incarcerated San Diegans rebuild their lives
  • Learn more about the SDWP Reentry Works program
  • Donate to The San Diego Foundation, CEO, SDWP and other organizations to support civic engagement, improve re-entry and reduce recidivism

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