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Florida and California Experiments Use Direct Cash Assistance to Newly Released Prisoners to Combat Recidivism

by Mark Wilson

“Guaranteed income is a wayto recognize everyone’s inherent dignity,” declared an op-ed in Florida’s Gainesville Sun on November 5, 2021.

Penned by Mayor Lauren Poe (D) and Kevin Scott, a fellow at local anti-poverty non-profit Community Spring, the op-ed announced a pilot program that pays “justice-impacted” people in Alachua County $7,600 during their first year after release from a Florida state or federal prison, or from a Florida jail with a new felony conviction, or beginning felony probation.

“When justice-impacted people have an income-floor, they will devote time and resources to find meaningful employment, stable housing and addressing their trauma,” wrote Poe and Scott. “They will be equipped to overcome a system that reincarcerates based on bank accounts.”

Begun on January 20, 2022, the pilot, called Just Income GNV, is providing unconditional direct-cash assistance of $1,000 in the first month post-release and $600 a month for the following 11 months to 115 individuals. The $874,000 fund was put together by a coalition of private donors who hope the assistance will interrupt reincarceration, strengthen the community, and provide long-term substantial taxpayer savings.

The program is one of the first in the nation to recognize and address significant financial challenges that individuals face upon release from incarceration, including purchasing necessities like food, clothing, a cell phone, reliable transportation and affordable housing, as well as finding and keeping employment that pays a living wage, establishing a bank account, and overcoming debt and rebuilding credit. Many of those returning to the community with little or no financial resources also struggle with significant mental health and addiction issues and are burdened with excessive supervision and treatment fees and expenses.

“People can be reincarcerated not for breaking a law, but for the inability to keep up with their payments. This is criminalizing poverty,” wrote Poe and Scott. “Nobody in our community should be too poor to be free.”

A similar pilot program on the country’s opposite coast offers $2,750 in direct cash assistance, spread over three payments, to 50 people released under a California law allowing prosecutors to recommend release for people who received excessive sentences or rehabilitated themselves in prison.

Offered by For the People and The Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), two non-profit organizations assisting prisoners with re-entry and resentencing under the new law, the pilot is an extension of Returning Citizens Stimulus (RCS), another direct cash assistance program that CEO has been running since April 2020.

Early results released in September 2021 showed that five months into the new RCS pilot, 42% of recipients were working. That’s 5% better than a study of people six months out of incarceration published by Prison Policy Initiative, which was based on 2010 data.

In its initial rollout, the RCS program gave three payments of up to $2,750 to people released from prison in response to COVID-19, distributing $24 million to more than 10,000 people in 31 cities in 11 states where CEO operates. Like the Florida program, both the initial RCS and its new California pilot are entirely funded by private donors.

“We need to be setting people up for success,” said Hillary Blout, For the People’s founder and executive director. “And when you look at people that have not been successful or you look at recidivism statistics, by and large, the reason that people are reoffending is because they’re not able to get their basic needs met—they weren’t able to get a job, they weren’t able to get transportation, they showed up to a job interview and they didn’t have anything professional to wear.”

While some prisons still offer “gate money” when releasing prisoners so they can buy a bus ticket or rent a cab, Blout notes that these funds—typically $200 or less—haven’t been updated since the 1970s and are woefully inadequate. The $2,750 payment, in contrast, allowed one person to buy a car so he could get to a job interview, according to Blout.

Noting that it costs more than $100,000 annually to incarcerate a person in California, Blout argues that if $2,750 in direct cash assistance can keep someone from returning to prison, it represents a substantial savings. These payments can also “build confidence among prosecutors and judiciary to say, ‘Yeah, we will release this person, now that we know they have services and money, we feel more comfortable making that release,’” said Sam Schaffer of CEO. “That to us is a really exciting idea, how cash assistance could really help accelerate the depopulation of prisons and jails.”

For the People and CEO hope to expand the California program beyond the initial 50 participants. “We’re trying to turn this into something that is part and parcel of what happens for people that are coming out of prison,” Blout said.

“We’ve acknowledged that we need to set people up with housing, we’ve acknowledged that transportation and job training are all important components of people’s reentry plan…We really want to see this cash assistance go hand in hand with that.”

Poe and Scott agree, noting that the Florida program is “about being afforded the opportunity to enter society with meaningful resources for the very first time.”  

Sources: Fast Company, Gainesville Sun, Money Geek, New York Times, Prison Policy Initiative

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