The case of Symeon Bankston of Youngstown illustrates an often understated dilemma in America’s criminal justice system: the challenges ex-convicts face as they re-enter society after months or years of incarceration.
Judge Maureen Sweeney of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court recently sentenced Bankston to four years in prison on drug-related charges. This incarceration is at least the third over the past eight years for the 31-year-old on drug and probation-violation charges.
During his most recent return to the streets, Bankston sought assistance from friends to help him get his life back on the straight and narrow. Their suggestion: Deal drugs.
“When I asked for help, they offered me crack,” Bankston told Judge Sweeney. “The only thing I could get was to sell drugs, drugs, drugs.”
Of course, Bankston — and many others like him — should have exercised better judgment and sought more credible counsel. The sad reality, however, is that too often too many ex-convicts are left to fend for themselves.
They do so facing myriad re-entry challenges, not the least of which are finding a place to live, getting proper drug and medical treatment and securing employment. Criminologists agree that a deficiency in any one of those three critical areas poses a serious risk for relapse into crime.
Such relapses contribute to criminal recidivism rates that, while falling in recent years, still remain unacceptably high. They harm the reputation of state and federal penal systems in failing to fully achieve their mission of rehabilitating and correcting convicts to become viable and productive citizens. In addition, they siphon millions of citizens’ tax dollars into the costs of imprisonment, which can run as high as $60,000 per year for a single inmate.
CONSIDERABLE PROGRESS ACHIEVED
Fortunately, the causes of and solutions to recidivism have gained increased attention from local, state and federal authorities in recent years. Such awareness, coupled with programs to help the ex-convict re-enter and readjust, largely have been responsible in reducing Ohio’s recidivism rate from 39 percent to 28 percent over the past decade, according to the state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
Some form of post-release supervision is critical. The idea of freeing prisoners with all the re-entry challenges that they face without supervision is ludicrous. Some form of post-release supervision — through tough and thorough parole as well as partnerships among community corrections, social-service and faith-based organizations — must be a priority.
Programs in Detroit and Cleveland serve as models for communities to explore. In Detroit, the New Beginnings program uses police officers as mentors to parolees, helping them in job placement, arranging community service work and dealing with anger management and other behaviors that precipitate criminal behavior. Given the high correlation between recidivism and joblessness, Cleveland’s Breaking the Cycle program places a priority on job placement,.
In the Mahoning Valley, the Community Corrections Association of Youngstown has taken a leading and commendable role in transitioning parolees and former convicts back to mainstream society. Its partnership with the Ohio State Penitentiary, for example, has given many parolees an opportunity to build viable job skills. Such programs and partnerships at CCA and other community institutions should be encouraged and expanded.
Of course, even the best post-incarceration programs will never reduce the recidivism rate to zero. Some criminals are too hardened and too accustomed to the thug life. But for the vast majority of ex-cons (with an accent on ex), robust programs that offer close supervision and ongoing guidance can salvage broken lives. They may even have saved Symeon Bankston from an additional four years behind bars.