Southern Cities Strive to Ensure Second Chances

April 29, 2024 - (5 min read)

By: James Crowder, Annie E. Casey Foundation

April is Second Chance Month, an opportunity to raise awareness of the unique barriers faced by people with criminal records and the tremendous potential they have to contribute to neighborhoods, cities, and civil society more broadly. The American penal system is built on the premise that someone incarcerated after being convicted of a crime is able to have their time behind bars serve as repaying their debt to society and, upon release, be able to rebuild their life and participate fully in our democracy. However, far too often, individuals face the negative impacts of incarceration for months or years after being released, such as difficulty finding employment, accessing safe and affordable housing, securing healthcare, or obtaining a loan to buy a home or launch a business. These challenges not only harm the individual returning from incarceration, but also their families and the economy as a whole.  This population faces unemployment at a rate more than 27 percent higher than the broader U.S. workforce. An analysis by JP Morgan Chase revealed that the employment barriers faced by individuals returning from incarceration cost the American economy almost $87 billion in lost gross domestic product (GDP) annually.

The process through which a person in correctional detention prepares for their release and reintegration back into the community is known as “reentry,” while individuals returning home after being in prison or jail are known as “returning citizens.” Developing and implementing a coordinated, holistic reentry process will help cities and municipalities achieve the dual goals of improving outcomes for returning citizens while also strengthening public safety by reducing unnecessary interactions with the police and criminal justice system so police officers can better focus their efforts on fighting crime.  For years, the National League of Cities has highlighted the importance of reentry planning for returning citizens for cities, towns, and villages to fully thrive.

In 2021, NLC released The Challenges and Promise of Reentry as a tool to support municipal leaders in identifying opportunities in the reentry field.

Shortly thereafter, NLC launched the Municipal Reentry Leaders Network to help cities leverage the unprecedented federal funding in the American Rescue Plan to reimagine public safety and address the many social inequities in our justice system. However, there are other NLC programs also grappling with these issues and are advancing innovative programs and policies to support returning citizens. Several of the cities participating in the Southern Cities Economic Inclusion (SCEI) initiative are also exploring ways to better serve returning citizens.  

Back in 2016, Birmingham became the first city in Alabama to adopt a “ban the box” policy for its hiring practices. Ban the box legislation encourages employers to delay or eliminate consideration of an applicant’s offense history as part of their hiring process. This is critical as research confirms that returning citizens who are able to find a job are about half as likely to re-offend as those who are unable to find employment. Since then, city leaders in Birmingham have continued their efforts to offer second chances to individuals. In 2023, the city partnered with the Jefferson County Family Resource Center and Jefferson County Juvenile Detention Center to launch the RESTORE Juvenile Reentry Program to provide comprehensive services and support for youth ages 16 to 19 who have been in contact with the criminal legal system. Participants go through a comprehensive family intake and assessment where they receive case management, are assessed for available benefits programs, and co-create an educational/career plan for the future.

RESTORE was initially slated to serve 120 juveniles during the first year. However, the program reached more than 630 participants, including 217 pre-release mentoring sessions. The program was so successful that Birmingham received an additional $2.4 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Justice to expand services and reach youth ages 11 to 15 years of age. 

Source: FOX 6 NEWS

In addition to Birmingham, several other SCEI cities are also prioritizing the potential contributions of returning citizens as part of their overall efforts to increase economic inclusion. For example, Norfolk, VA, has created a Re-Entry Council comprising representatives from city human service agencies, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Virginia Employment Commission, and Old Dominion University. There is also a subcommittee structure that allows for greater contributions from the local faith-based community and for additional emphasis on specific populations, like juvenile offenders. The City of Knoxville opted to address the frequent challenge that returning citizens face accessing safe and affordable housing. Research confirms that returning citizens are ten times more likely to be homeless than the general public. To this end, the City of Knoxville partnered with a faith-based prison ministry, Men of Valor, to open Valor Way in 2022, an affordable housing development that also provides supportive services to returning citizens.

About the Author

James Crowder, Senior Associate for Local Policy Reform and Advocacy, Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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About the Authors