For many released from prison, the struggle to return to normalcy is an arduous process. Recent support from Rahm Emanuel for a reentry pilot program may relieve the burden for some ex-offenders, however. In late March, he joined the Chicago Housing Authority in announcing the creation of a pilot program that will allow fifty formerly incarcerated individuals to return to their families in public housing.
Individuals will be chosen from three reentry service providers for ex-offenders: the Safer Foundation, St. Leonard’s Ministries, and Lutheran Social Services of Illinois. Over the next three years, CHA will observe the reintegration of the group of ex-offenders, after which they will decide whether or not to expand the program to include more of the formerly incarcerated.
Nationwide, recidivism—the relapse into criminal behavior after release from prison—continues to be a major problem for the criminal justice system. An April study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 67.8 percent of 404,638 prisoners in thirty states were rearrested within three years of release. Nearly seventy-seven percent were rearrested within five years. Additionally, in 2011 the Pew Center on the States estimated that more than half of the 45,000 individuals serving time in Illinois state prisons would return to prison within three years.
St. Leonard’s, Safer Foundation, and Lutheran Social Services all provide employment training, individual counseling, and referral services to assist ex-offenders’ transitions into life outside of prison. Participants also have access to anger management and substance abuse counseling. After one year with one of these organizations, ex-offenders will be eligible for selection for the pilot program. Service work at one of the organizations does not guarantee placement in the program.
“The pilot program isn’t just for anyone. You will have to bust your butt to get this opportunity,” says Charles Austin, co-chairman of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless’s (CCH) Homeless Reentry Committee. It was the Coalition’s partnership with CHA that led to the pilot’s creation. According to Austin, after demonstrating exemplary performance within these programs, individuals will be selected to participate in reentry.
After revisiting families who will be in CHA-managed public housing or in Section 8 subsidized housing, the pilot program will follow up with intensive case management for a period of up to two years. The family and the ex-offender will engage in counseling, education, and business training. At the end of the period, CHA and the service providers will analyze the results to determine whether an expansion of the program could work.
There are, however, some restrictions on eligibility. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has a list of banned crimes, including arson, production of methamphetamine, and public housing fraud. Anyone convicted of any of these offenses will be automatically disqualified.
Roger Ehmen, director of community reentry and employment services for the Westside Health Authority, manages numerous cases of ex-offenders seeking reentry. “Everybody needs to be loved, everybody needs a support system,” he says. “If I get out and can’t live with my family, that is an obstacle to successful reentry. There are a lot of folks who want to get that to happen.” Recent ex-offenders often lack job skills, transportation, and a paycheck, without which successful reentry often proves difficult.
Ex-offenders face even further challenges in moving back in with their families. “The person and family who want to live together can’t get CHA housing, so that means they leave subsidized housing,” Ehmen says. “But is the guy who is working forty hours a week and making minimum wage going to have enough money to pay for a two- or three-bedroom apartment?”
Currently, individuals who have been convicted of a crime within the past five years are denied public housing. According to Austin, an individual convicted eight years ago could serve four years of prison, four years of conditional release, and could wait an additional five years before reaching the top of a wait list to claim a housing voucher—in total, a thirteen-year wait for subsidized housing.
It is also illegal for ex-offenders to return to families on housing vouchers after release. “People would go back and commit crimes in their original environment, so the CHA would not put them back into an environment where they started their crimes,” says Austin.
“The CHA initially resisted because you have the backdrop of violence of public housing,” says Anthony Lowery, policy director for the Safer Foundation. “That has always been [true], and even to this day remains to be true, and will be true once we start. There were some staff members who feared the negative publicity of poorly picking clients or feeling that participants would push people off of the waiting list or take their spot,” says Austin. It wasn’t until Emanuel offered direct support for the program that plans for its implementation began to move forward.
There are questions, though, as to whether the relatively small pilot program will be able to provide sufficient data on its own effectiveness. “[The initial fifty] was a number the CHA was comfortable with, and there will be an increase in numbers after a successful proof of viability of the project,” says Lowery. But the small sample size could make measuring substantive change difficult, and an additional challenge, Lowery says, may be families’ willingness to take in whatever ex-offenders they have. “They burn a lot of bridges after going to prison.”
Still, he hopes that participants in the program will become examples of strength for other ex-offenders in the reentry process. “By successfully reintegrating into their communities,” Lowery says, “these individuals can reach out and prove that you can have success after incarceration.”