THIS YEAR more inmates will be getting out of prison than ever before in this country -- about 615,000, more than triple the typical annual number in the 1980s. Though no one warned the offenders, it is also less likely than before that they will be able to go home, or get a job, or do many of the things people with limited resources need to do to reintegrate into normal life.
Criminologists call it "invisible sentencing." During the 1990s, dozens of federal and state laws were enacted prohibiting former prisoners from a range of activities. Federal law bars them from living in public housing. People convicted of drug offenses can never receive welfare or food stamps. In many states they are barred from voting, or from working in dozens of jobs that provide many of the decent tickets to the middle class: plumbing, teaching, private security, haircutting. At the time these laws were passed, mostly as amendments to bills such as welfare reform, they seemed to be political winners: cost-free, advertised as deterrents to crime and provided as a public service. Public housing residents didn't want drug dealers cycling back. Many of the restrictions were enacted with little dissent from either party.
But in retrospect, they don't seem so wise. For one thing, they produce absurd human dilemmas. A man is released from prison and shows up at his mother's door, the only place he can still call home. She now has to choose between making her son homeless and getting evicted. A man goes through teacher training only to discover that a 1973 marijuana possession charge he pleaded guilty to will keep him from getting a job. At the time when society was concentrating on building prisons and locking people up, it was difficult to imagine what that policy would produce at the other end. Now we know: Something of an ex-con nation has developed, with about 5 million men who have served time in prison.
Lately there are signs of regret. Some states are reversing their decisions to deny convicted felons the right to vote. The American Bar Association just adopted guidelines calling for states to reveal post-prison consequences at plea-bargain and sentencing hearings, so everyone knows what to expect. In the meantime state budget crunches are forcing some other reversals: California is considering not making parole violation an automatic cause for incarceration; other states are increasing compassionate releases for nonviolent or ill prisoners.
Crime rates in most major cities, including Washington's homicide rate, are starting to spike again. Over the next few years, criminologists will debate how much of that is due to this new mass of released prisoners. Whatever they decide, there seems no reason to make recidivism a self-fulfilling prophecy. Released inmates who want to stay on the right side of the law shouldn't be gratuitously discouraged.