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All these things make Sanders fairly representative of the class of men criminologists and politicians have recently become concerned with: ex-offenders in the throes of re-entry. Surprisingly little is known about them. And the looming fear is that their return--just at the time the country is fighting a recession and a war--will boost crime again, just as their incarceration helped bring it down. Already, crime increases in Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles have been at least partly blamed on their return. Meanwhile, for the ex-offenders and the people entangled in their lives, this new phase can be just as wrenching as the initial lockup.
If Sanders continues to be typical, he will go back to prison. More than 40% of men released today return to prison within three years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The number is higher for men like Sanders, who have been released before and gone back before. Sanders has a 12-page criminal history; it depicts a petty drug dealer, a car thief--a career of committing and recommitting crimes within a very small radius of his childhood home. But since his release, Sanders has done almost all that reformers can reasonably expect of an ex-con who has never completed high school; who was abused as a child; who lost seven family members to murder, fire and disease; who has an epic history of drug addiction; and who is, in the end, not that unusual among the masses of former inmates.
While the country's prisons were growing and multiplying in the 1990s, society's ambitions for them withered. Rehabilitation went out of fashion. America vented its frustration with crime and the drug war by reducing access to in-prison drug-treatment and education programs; outside prisons, the Federal Government dramatically restricted welfare and public housing for ex-cons. Meanwhile, technology made it easier for even corner bodegas to run background checks. And the list of occupations barred to people with records grew longer.
The result is that each day this year, an average of 1,726 men and women--mostly men--will walk out of penal institutions having spent more time behind bars, with less preparation for their return to society and slimmer chances of success there, than those who came before them. The country's once overcrowded prison system has matured into an overwhelmed postrelease supervision system. According to a Justice Department report released last August, there are now 4.6 million Americans on probation or parole--an increase of 44% since 1990. And just as the prison population is racially skewed, so goes the ex-con demographic: 47% of parolees are black. "We need to think about the long-term consequences of what we've done," says Jeremy Travis, lead author of a June Urban Institute report on prison re-entry. "For [the African-American] community to have 10% to 25% of its men unable to vote or unable to access credit or other privileges of citizenship for the rest of their lives in some states creates a permanently diminished group within society."