Review Essay: But They All Come Back

Review Essay: But They All Come Back

John Riley

Riley, John. (Summer 2005). "Review Essay: But They All Come Back." Alaska Justice Forum 22(2): 2-3. Correctional programs in the United States are costly and notoriously ineffective. With what is by far the highest incarceration rate in any of the world's developed nations, the U.S. nevertheless continues to experience high crime rates. In But They All Come Back, reviewed in this article, Jeremy Travis argues that our current collective unwillingness to take responsibilities for the consequences of mass incarceration must be understood as one cause of the nation's continuing crime problem. Through neglect and a quarter century of bankrupt, conservative crime policies, Travis argues, we are manufacturing the conditions for recidivism and virtually guaranteeing high levels of crime and incarceration well into the forseeable future.

But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry
By Jeremy Travis
Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press, 2002. 420 pages.

America’s correctional programs are costly and notoriously ineffective. With what is by far the highest incarceration rate in any of the world’s developed nations, America nevertheless continues to experience high crime rates. Virtually all experts on the criminal justice system agree that a substantial portion of America’s crime problem and much of the cost of incarceration may be explained by the recidivism of recently released offenders. Research published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics suggests that almost half of those we release from prison have been in prison before. High rates of recidivism reflect both a substantial number of new crimes committed by recently released prisoners as well as many technical violations of parole conditions. According to Jeremy Travis, in recent years we have been incarcerating about as many people for parole violations as we imprisoned for all reasons in 1980. With both technical violations and new offenses, the failure to make a successful transition to life in the community often means another expensive and often unproductive stay in a state or federal prison.

In But They All Come Back, released this year, Travis argues that our current collective unwillingness to take responsibility for the consequences of mass incarceration must be understood as one cause of America’s continuing crime problem. Through neglect, and a quarter century’s worth of bankrupt, conservative crime policies, we are manufacturing the conditions for recidivism and virtually guaranteeing high levels of crime and incarceration well into the foreseeable future. Instead of trying to reintegrate offenders and assure their post-release success, we have consciously worked to limit their legitimate opportunities and to undermine genuine efforts at reform.

Moreover, the costs of incarceration are not limited to those usually associated with prison budgets. Other costs imposed on families and communities by the incarceration of their members are equally important if far more difficult to measure and address. These costs and a series of policy proposals intended for the better delivery of criminal justice services form the subject of But They All Come Back. Travis is well known for his work on crime and punishment, and especially for his recent contributions in the field of prisoner reentry. Those who are familiar with his work will appreciate this opportunity to consider his most recent thinking on reentry issues. Those who are as yet unacquainted with his work may be surprised by the scope of his concerns and the far-reaching implications of his analysis. But They All Come Back will provide readers with a concise introduction to some of the major policy issues in the field of criminal justice while also moving beyond the narrow institutional concerns that sometimes limit work in this area.

According to Travis, the impact of America’s imprisonment binge goes way beyond prison or even criminal justice system expenditures, raising critical issues of social justice:

Our experiment in mass incarceration has had a significant impact on the children, families, and communities of those we send to prison. We have weakened our democracy by denying millions of citizens the right to vote, undermined our pursuit of racial justice by incarceration policies with racially disparate outcomes, and created a society in which the stigma of a criminal conviction consigns large numbers of its members to a life at the margin.

This new book is an examination of the consequences of mass imprisonment and the challenge of prisoner reentry — not just for the actors and institutions of the criminal justice system, but for the larger society in which crime and justice issues emerge.

But They All Come Back is written in three parts. Part One describes the current state of punishment in America. It offers a concise discussion of the evolution of American sentencing policy, focusing on the development and decline of indeterminate sentencing and the rise of the determinate sentencing practices that now play such a prominent role in America. (Indeterminate sentencing structures allowed a judge wide discretion to tailor individual sentences. Determinate policies impose a predetermined sentence for a specific type of crime. Alaska currently uses a determinate sentencing structure for most felony offenses and some misdemeanors.) The movement from indeterminate sentencing policies, which were intended to complement an emphasis on rehabilitation, to today’s determinate sentencing policies, which limit the extent to which sentences can be shortened to reward or reinforce rehabilitation efforts, has been a major factor in America’s “new penology.” It is a penology that emphasizes the punishment and social exclusion of the offender over concerns for the inmate’s eventual reentry and reintegration into the community.

Part One also offers a valuable account of the rise of what Travis has called “invisible punishments”—that web of additional post-conviction legal restrictions that continues to haunt convicted felons long after their sentences have been served. Invisible punishments include laws that limit voting, occupational entry, and access to things like public housing and school loans for those who have been convicted of felonies. We are now only beginning to understand the ways in which these invisible punishments limit the rehabilitation and reentry of ex-offenders.

Part Two of But They All Come Back describes the social policy challenges facing those working to promote successful reentry and reintegration of the approximately 630,000 men and women released from American prisons each year. The chapters focus on seven distinct policy domains: public safety, the family, work, public health, housing, civic identity, and community. Prisoner reentry inevitably involves all of these domains, with clear implications for all working in the field of human services. Current criminal justice policies often undermine reentry. Travis shows how better coordination among policy experts and service providers in these areas could increase the efficiency and effectiveness of programs, eventually reducing costs and improving outcomes across this very broad spectrum of policy areas.

In Part Three, Travis outlines an agenda for those who want to make successful reintegration of former prisoners a priority in contemporary America. He describes five principles of effective reentry that reformers can use to guide current practices. Cognizant of current political realities, Travis offers suggestions that may be implemented without a major political realignment or any legislative changes. Hoping for more, he outlines an ambitious series of legislative initiatives—a plan consistent with an aggressive commitment to reducing crime by reducing recidivism.

Among the author’s suggestions are two proposals that could play a central role in reforming a criminal justice system clearly in need of change. Travis suggests that we organize reentry courts and establish entities he refers to as community justice corporations. Reentry courts are similar in conception to the drug courts that are now appearing throughout the country to address the legal and social problems associated with drug addiction. With some already functioning experimentally in several jurisdictions, reentry courts are intended to have the primary responsibility for the supervision of recently released felons. The reentry court oversees the rehabilitation as well as the punishment of the offender, with a judge assuming some of the responsibilities currently assigned to parole agents—with the judicial power to order sanctions for an offender’s lapses as well as mandate court-supported rewards, such as shorter sentences and release from the collateral civil liabilities associated with felony conviction. By ordering short periods of incarceration or by reinstating limited driving privileges, for example, reentry court judges working with newly released offenders would be able to punish them for misconduct or reward them for the kind of behavior we associate with successful reintegration into the community.

Community justice corporations, which would work closely with reentry courts, would be a mechanism for “grass roots” oversight of the reentry process, emphasizing local knowledge and local control. They would function as a kind of “justice intermediary,” standing between the community and the criminal justice system. Travis believes that community justice corporations could be organized either as public agencies or as private nonprofit organizations. They would represent the criminal justice system but function at the level of the local community rather than as state or national bodies. Through what Travis refers to as a devolution of responsibility from the state to the local community, those most in touch with the realities of particular neighborhoods would be responsible for coordinating the many activities that make reintegration possible.

There is much more to recommend in But They All Come Back. The collateral costs of incarceration have only recently begun to receive the attention they deserve. Travis draws on the emerging literature in this area in a way that will inform and no doubt surprise many readers. He offers a statistical portrait of crime and the problem of reintegration that is clear, concise, and compelling. His thinking reflects a scholar’s understanding of the most recent empirical research on reentry issues, coupled with respect for the experience of corrections and rehabilitation professionals. In a field where serious discussion all too often becomes mired in questionable statistical abstractions, Travis has taken pains to ground the discussion in concrete case studies and accounts of actual programs that have delivered services in cities across America. Moreover, while his suggestions for reform are certainly far-reaching, they are not as radical as some reform proposals we have seen in Washington in recent years.

Many Americans, including the current president, have already expressed a commitment to improving opportunities for prisoner reentry. Those who take the time to read But They All Come Back will certainly understand why this issue is generating discussion. Even so, it remains to be seen if those who are committed to making America “the land of the second chance” will be able to win the broad public support necessary to go beyond discussion and move from a failed policy reflecting short-term political expediency to an energetic and successful reengineering of the American criminal justice system. Real courage, and a willingness to acknowledge past mistakes, will be required if we are to reduce recidivism and promote the successful reentry of those who have completed prison sentences. It appears that these are commodities in short supply today, particularly among those best positioned to influence public policies on reentry. Travis has outlined one of the great public policy challenges of our time, a challenge that offers America potential rewards that could far exceed the costs of a practical solution. Even so, the immediate risks to politicians who support effective reentry programs are substantial. Those who look to Washington for effective leadership on this issue, at least in the near future, will almost certainly be disappointed. This is a challenge that might be most effectively met on the state and local level, by those who face the consequences of failed sentencing policies and correctional programs on a daily basis. One can only hope that those who do not have the vision or the courage to join them will have the good sense to get out of the way.

John Riley is an associate professor with the Justice Center.