Boston reentry initiative hits the skids

Award-winning program to aid those leaving prison loses federal funding

BOSTON’S WIDELY ACCLAIMED prisoner reentry program, which is aimed at reducing recidivism by helping offenders who are released from prison with everything from employment and housing to addiction services, was quietly shut down last fall when a federal grant funding the efforts wasn’t renewed.

The shutdown, which was never announced, is a big setback to city efforts to combat one of the most stubborn realities of the criminal justice system — the huge percentage of those released from incarceration who wind up back behind bars within several years.

The axing of the programs occurred only months after Mayor Marty Walsh announced plans last June to open a city office to coordinate reentry programs. State leaders, who have embraced a national effort to rethink criminal justice policies, also say they are committed to bolstering reentry programs aimed at reducing recidivism.

According to the nonpartisan Council of State Governments, which has been working with state leaders on criminal justice reform plans, two-thirds of those released from Massachusetts county jails face new charges within three years, with almost half of them convicted. Of those leaving Massachusetts state prisons, 57 percent face a new arraignment within three years, with 38 percent of them convicted.

Boston’s loss of funding from the federal Second Chance Act meant the shutdown last September of two programs: the Boston Reentry Initiative, which for more than a decade worked with city residents being released from the Suffolk County House of Correction, and Overcoming the Odds, a parallel program established in 2013 to work with inmates being released to Boston neighborhoods from state Department of Correction facilities.

“It’s absolutely unsettling that the Boston Reentry Initiative as well as programs like Overcoming the Odds have been completely unfunded, and most folks in the community have no idea,” said City Councilor Andrea Campbell, chair of the council’s Committee on Public Safety and Criminal Justice.

In February, the city and its nonprofit partners patched together a plan and restarted the Boston Reentry Initiative, but not at full strength. Overcoming the Odds remains shut down.

The Boston Reentry Initiative was launched in 2001. It has been supported with a combination of federal funding and, at one point, a state grant focused on preventing gang violence.

The program was ahead of the curve in taking on the challenge of lowering recidivism, a goal that is now becoming widely embraced as a central challenge facing the criminal justice system. In 2004, the Boston reentry effort received the International Association of Chiefs of Police community policing award.

Three years ago, the initiative was expanded to also work with high-risk inmates leaving state prisons for Boston neighborhoods.

The programs, which were funded through the Boston Police Department, identified prisoners considered to be at moderate or high risk of committing new crimes. Groups of inmates were brought together to hear presentations from law enforcement officials and prosecutors as well as from social service providers and faith-based leaders. The message to inmates was that law enforcement agencies had an eye on them and would aggressively prosecute any return to criminal activity, but there was also lots of help available to those ready to get on a more productive path when they were released.

At the heart of the programs were case managers who worked with prisoners during the months before their release and then worked to connect them with services, including housing and job opportunities, for several months following their return to the community. Each program worked with about 20 new inmates per month.

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