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Life After Prison

Here's a little-noticed statistic that's worth chewing on. This year 585,000 people will be released from prisons in the United States, according to Justice Department figures.

This is the flip side of the burgeoning prison-population coin. Locking so many criminals away is one thing. But how will society deal with the rapid rise of ex-convicts in its midst?

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The problem has drawn federal attention. Attorney General Janet Reno has put forward a plan for increased supervision of former inmates. She would set up special "reentry courts" to closely monitor released prisoners, who would regularly report back to the courts. They would be given job counseling, drug rehab, and other services if they adhered to conditions set at the time of release. The administration wants $145 million to launch pilot projects around the country.

That's good, as far as it goes. Ms. Reno's idea essentially enlarges parole programs already in operation. And those programs all too often suffer from understaffing and underfunding.

But what's needed, in addition, is a broader recognition on the part of policymakers and citizens that simply freeing large numbers of convicts with minimal preparation or support is an untenable risk.

One option is to ignore the growing population of ex-cons and just accept that many - around 4 out of 10 - will return to prison. In today's booming economy and tight labor market more people coming out of prison are finding employment. Those who find decent jobs are often grateful employees - and far less likely to commit new crimes.

But structured help - educational and job preparation before release and support after - would greatly increase the numbers who stay straight. It's an investment in crime prevention the country ought to make.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society