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Viewpoint: Re-entry programs give felons a 2nd chance

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I met Jeff at a re-entry peer support group a few months ago. In his 20s, with an easygoing and soft-spoken persona, he has his first job at a local retailer and, in spite of his past, a spirit of gratitude.

Jeff got a second chance at life. At age 9, he was first arrested. By 15, he was charged with firearm possession, which landed him in prison.

After his release, Jeff’s life took a positive turn. A mandatory program that helps formerly incarcerated individuals transition back into the community was his saving grace. Through the organization’s re-entry program, Jeff accessed a support system that obliterated barriers in his environment, transforming him from a felon into a law-abiding, tax-paying Delawarean.

Delaware has several re-entry programs, most of which are nonprofits. The state allocates few resources for those exiting prison, and the resources that exist are not sufficient to service the entire population. This leads to higher recidivism rates, which increase the taxpayer burden.

These re-entry programs cost far less than a prison cell, and they are much better at reducing recidivism. These programs reduce recidivism rates at one-fifth of the cost of a prison cell. One program, which has been functioning for two years, spent $294,332 helping 52 returning citizens complete their program, many like Jeff. Of these, 40 did not return to prison. That comes out to a cost of $7,358 per participant. Not only does this directly lower prison costs, but people who do not recidivate begin contributing to the economy. Jeff holds a job and pays taxes, all of which he may not have done were he not given this opportunity.

The low estimate of one year in prison is $33,000. Preventing just 16 people from recommitting will save taxpayers more than a half-million dollars.

The next attorney general should establish an Office of Safe Neighborhoods. This office would foster the growth of a network of agencies and stakeholders who can develop statewide strategies to expand diversion services, improve rehabilitative services in prison, expand community re-entry services and ultimately reduce recidivism. By bringing more stakeholders to the table, we can grow the economy while reducing recidivism rates.

Integral to this office would be the employment of formerly incarcerated and reformed individuals to lend their unique insights into how to enhance Delaware’s criminal justice process, ensuring that people break free of this vicious cycle and head with confidence into a brighter future.

Many people have told me that we need to be tough on crime. Make no mistake: as a former prosecutor, there are times when it is necessary to aggressively prosecute crime. But a balanced approach is what is best for the long-term safety and prosperity of Delaware families and our state overall. Being “tough on crime” means that punishments increase, more sentences are handed out, and prisons cost more money. A reduction in recidivism and a reduction in spending go hand in hand.

We now have a unique opportunity to radically improve the lives of Delawareans like never before, while saving money. Delaware deserves an attorney general who is dedicated to establishing a system that employs innovative cost-effective programs to help individuals like Jeff get a second chance at life and keeps our communities safe.

LaKresha Roberts is a Democratic candidate for attorney general. She most recently served as chief deputy attorney general under Matt Denn.

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