Justice Department to help Georgia with inmate re-entry initiatives

Georgia wants to help convicts released from prison stay out of trouble, and the U.S. Justice Department is offering help.

At a summit today, top federal and state officials will shine a light on how often inmates return to crime and a cell after they leave prison. The officials will implore local businesses to help these ex-cons succeed.

Helping them re-enter society is the third phase of Georgia’s ambitious criminal-justice reform initiative. Earlier steps dealt with nonviolent offenders and juveniles.

“We need to call on our communities to be part of the solution,” U.S. Attorney Sally Yates said in an interview Tuesday.

Yates and Gov. Nathan Deal, who has spearheaded Georgia’s reform efforts, will be among the participants at the Summit on Reentry at the U.S. courthouse downtown. One topic will be employment opportunities for former inmates and the benefits offered to businesses that give them jobs, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

The U.S. already has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and 95 percent of the prison population will eventually be released. Currently, about two-thirds of all state prisoners and 40 percent of all federal prisoners commit crimes again within three years of release.

“Those numbers are astronomically high,” Yates said. “And every time a former inmate re-offends, it impacts the community. That individual’s life is ruined, it hurts his family and, of course, there are new victims.”

The steady stream of ex-cons who commit new crimes and return to prison has contributed directly to swelling prison budgets, Yates said.

“We simply can’t afford to keep incarcerating people at the rate we are now,” she said. “If we want to have safer communities, and I think we all do, we need to proactively address the high rates of recidivism.”

In recent years, Georgia has enacted two criminal-justice reform packages. In 2012, the Legislature passed a groundbreaking law to divert nonviolent offenders from prison. Last year, Deal signed legislation aimed at keeping juveniles who commit drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes out of detention centers. The initiatives direct nonviolent criminals to diversion programs and accountability courts to improve the chance they will not re-offend.

This year, Deal’s initiative seeks to remove barriers that routinely prevent ex-cons who have gone through rehabilitation programs from finding work or a place to sleep.

“Re-entry is the third leg of our criminal-justice reforms, which are already paying big dividends for Georgia,” Deal said Tuesday. “Now we’re focused on helping inmates who have served their time to transition back into society.”

Every state faces similar challenges and Georgia is leading the way on finding solutions, the governor said. “The fact that the Justice Department is choosing to have this summit here is no accident. People are noticing we’re doing things right.”

The Justice Department has already awarded a $100,000 grant to the state Department of Corrections to help Georgia’s initiative. It will help expand ex-inmates’ access to housing, health care, job training and education.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office is working with the Urban League of Greater Atlanta, the Morehouse School of Medicine and the state Board of Pardons and Paroles to help inmates after their release, Yates said. The 12-week program provides job training, substance-abuse counseling and tips on interviews with prospective employers.

“Think of how hard it is for the average person to get a job nowadays,” Yates said. “Now just think how much harder it will be if you add ‘convicted felon’ to your resumé.”