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Since 2011, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared California’s prison overcrowding a violation of the Constitution, the state has been required to make drastic cuts to its prison population. A number of criminal justice reforms, including Prop 36 in 2012 and Prop 47 in 2014, have gained popularity amongst voters and legislators as California works to shift away from its unconstitutional reliance on incarceration. But when it comes to the actual process of early releases, which are associated with low levels of recidivism in both Prop 36 and Prop 47, fearful rhetoric and anecdotal arguments can fill conversations around public safety.

Rather than fall into the fear that individuals released from incarceration are not ready” for reentry, community members must join criminal justice advocates in considering: What prepares a person for reentry? How can we foster this person’s success and, in turn, their community’s safety? To these critical questions, research-driven rehabilitative programs prove to be effective and cost-efficient alternatives to incarceration. Ideally, supports should be integrated across service providers and take place within a person’s own community— as close to home as possible.

While the community is the best place for rehabilitation supports and services, individuals who are incarcerated can benefit from rehabilitative programming as well. Currently, over ninety-five percent of people incarcerated in state prisons across the U.S. will be released at some point. For them, reentry is not a mere possibility, but a process that should begin the moment they are sentenced to a correctional facility. Reentry supports must address their individualized needs and may include: group and individual therapy, substance use treatment, educational courses, job training, exposure to art, and personal development. 

Moving forward, communities cannot afford a continued focus on incarceration that lacks any evidential basis. Time spent in confinement can have immediate negative impacts on a person’s life outcomes and incarceration itself props up barriers to the individual’s eventual reentry. A person who is employed when arrested can lose their source of income in a matter of days or weeks, and time spent in incarceration only adds a layer of stigma and decreases employability. Supportive relationships with prosocial friends and family members may diminish, or disappear altogether, due to limited and costly visitation, the isolation of facilities, and the negative psychological effects of a prison environment.

Rehabilitation efforts must move toward limiting the number of people who experience incarceration, and whose lives are inevitably changed by it. Notably, most Americans and the overwhelming majority of crime victims support shorter prison sentences and prefer programs for rehabilitation, treatment, and prevention. In order to better support communities and individuals affected by crime, we must invest in community-based rehabilitation and prevention rather than detention and punishment.