Dr. Jennifer Ortiz lends expertise to PBS NewsHour story on reentry funding

14th April 2021

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–The title says it all: “The U.S. spends billions to lock people up, but very little to help them once they’re released.

That story, by journalist Casey Kuhn, appeared last week as a feature on the website of the PBS NewsHour, where Kuhn works as an associate producer.

To get an expert’s perspective on the complex issue of funding for reentry programs, Kuhn turned to Dr. Jennifer Ortiz, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at IU Southeast.

Kuhn, herself a 2013 graduate of IU Bloomington, had researched extensively on reentry for a previous story, but had difficulty finding experts in the area of funding.

“It didn’t seem like the topic of funding in general had been adequately researched,” Kuhn said.

As Kuhn spoke with the CEOs of several nonprofit organizations, she found not a funding system, but instead a fraying patchwork of grants and philanthropy, mostly locally-based.

In Ortiz’s published work on the failures of the current nonprofit funding model, Kuhn saw academic confirmation of her own anecdotal evidence.

“Dr. Ortiz’s research rang true as I spoke to [nonprofit CEOs] about competition among programs, as well as inconsistent funding.” Kuhn said. “When I spoke with Dr. Ortiz over the phone, she was the perfect source to talk about these issues from an expert perspective, and she did a great job putting the nonprofit’s funding woes into context.”

Last year, Ortiz received grant funding from the Opportunity Network in the amount of $40,000 to support the Network’s new Workbook Program, which aims to help released individuals in Kentucky better understand and proactively respond to the demands of life after re-entry.

While that project represents a step forward, and Kuhn’s article has helped to bring the issue out of the shadows, the landscape has changed during the past year, and not for the better.

To begin with, the slowdown in economic activity during pandemic-related shutdowns have hit state budgets hard, and also reduced donations from the philanthropic sector.

“Most reentry organizations are non-profits who are dependent on grants and donations,” Ortiz said. “The budgetary issues during this pandemic have caused financial issues for most non-profits, which means that providing reentry services is more difficult now.”

At the same time, social distancing guidelines have prevented reentry organizations from meeting with clients face-to-face.

“This is a significant barrier because many individuals returning from incarceration do not have access to internet service or they may be unfamiliar with programs like Zoom or Google Meets,” Ortiz said.

To prevent jails from becoming COVID hotspots, many correctional departments began releasing incarcerated individuals, solving one problem but causing others.

“Many of these individuals were released with very little notice so they were unable to begin preparing for release,” Ortiz said.

With 600,000 incarcerated persons released every year, and no guaranteed funding or systematic structures in place to support successful re-integration, it’s hard to know where to begin. But Ortiz mentions a few basic and very realistic steps that can be taken in the short term. These include providing released individuals with documentation, including a state ID card, social security card and birth certificate, all of which are needed to apply for employment or housing.

She also stresses the need to enable incarcerated individuals to secure health insurance before they are released from prison or jail.

“We know that jails are the largest mental health providers in the nation and mental illness is more prevalent among the incarcerated population than the free population,” Ortiz said. “If they don’t have health insurance, they will likely go off their medication and end up in mental health crises within days of their release.”

Once released, individuals reentering society need a stable living situation, which is currently not always the case.

“Far too often these individuals are released to homeless shelters or halfway homes that offer little, if any, meaningful assistance during their transition,” Ortiz said.

Despite the headwinds, Ortiz is positive about the opportunity to contribute to increased media visibility for the reentry issue, and sees glimmers of hope in the legislative arena.

“I appreciate that we are finally having meaningful conversations about reentry and that individuals on both sides of the political aisle have expressed interest in reform,” Ortiz said. “If we continue to ignore this problem, we will continue to have one of the highest recidivism rates in the world.”

As for Kuhn, she is “fully fascinated” by the subject, and plans to expand her investigation in a follow-up story that looks at how government is funding reentry.

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