Jennifer Ortiz to lead new grant-funded re-entry project in Louisville

21st April 2020

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–Of every 100 incarcerated people released into the community in Kentucky, 32 will return to jail within three years. Of those on parole or probation, the number is over 50.

This high rate of recidivism is not inevitable. It is often the consequence of social environment, a person’s pre-arrest circumstances, gaps in services, as well as policies and laws that restrict citizens with a criminal record from personal transformation and social participation.

“Individuals released from prison are expected to achieve the impossible: remaining crime-free while being denied access to housing, employment, education, and basic necessities,” said Jennifer Ortiz, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at IU Southeast. “Nationwide some 40,000 laws bar individuals from living in public housing, receiving financial aid, renting an apartment, obtaining a professional license, and many other tools they would need to be successful.”

To disrupt that dynamic in Kentucky, and to reform the process of re-entry for incarcerated individuals into the community, the Opportunity Network was formed in 2018.

Now Ortiz, has received grant funding from the Opportunity Network in the amount of $40,000 to support the Network’s new Workbook Program.

In this program, 100 male inmates (convicted of a C- or D-level felony) in four Kentucky Department of Corrections (KYDOC) jails will maintain a workbook that contains information and exercises to help them build skills needed in the workforce and in life. Starting up to one year prior to release, the workbook is intended as a record of benchmarks completed, but also as the basis for conversations about personal accountability and socially acceptable behavior. There is also room for personal reflection to allow the individual to process the experience, focus on areas of needed improvement and chart progress.

Ortiz’s role is to evaluate the effectiveness of the workbook by tracking the post-release outcomes of the 100 individuals who have used the workbook, compared to the outcomes of 100 others that have not. Her data will not only determine the workbook’s relative effectiveness, but also help to identify specific gaps in implementation or other aspects that require adjustment.

The ONWP program largely reflects the key elements of the Warren Kimbro Reentry Program (formerly known as Project Fresh Start), a reentry initiative in New Haven, Connecticut launched in 2015. That initiative also sought to evaluate individual readiness for re-entry by addressing personal barriers such as mental health.

The New Haven initiative and similar projects around the country, strive to address the personal and social costs of recidivism. They received heightened visibility and funding through passage of the Second Chance Act (SCA) in 2008. The SCA authorizes federal grants for vital programs and systems reform aimed at improving the reentry process.

For Ortiz, who prides herself on being a public criminologist who shares knowledge and findings with the world, the project promises to put information in the hands of practitioners in a position to create real change.

“Far too often academics speak and write to other academics, which means that most of our research never reaches the individuals in positions of power,” Ortiz said. “This project and others like it, help our research have a meaningful impact on policy.”

The grant will allow Ortiz to hire two undergraduate students to input and analyze data. They will be trained in how to develop SPSS databases, how to code data, how to conduct statistical analyses, and how to write reports for public consumption, according to Ortiz.

But the benefits of the project to IU Southeast go beyond skill-building for these two students.

“Bridging the gap between the two sides of the river is crucial to expanding IU Southeast’s influence and impact on the community,” Ortiz said.

Indeed, by bringing IU Southeast together with other agencies and organizations, the project promises to help strengthen bonds between IU Southeast and community, bonds that are beneficial for both the campus and the region it serves, helping to advance its mission by leveraging expertise for quality of life.

Significantly, the project represents a broad partnership between KYDOC’s facilities, KYDOC reentry programs, probation and parole, and the Opportunity Network itself.

“Reentry should be a collective effort that involves all stakeholders including the public,” Ortiz said. “My hope is that our findings can shed light on gaps in programming and areas that need improvement, so that we can begin to locate avenues for all members of society to collectively work to address the problem.”

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