In the first week of November, Tennessee saw the return of 150 federal drug offenders who were released from prison with shortened sentences, following action by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to reduce penalties for nonviolent drug offenders.
The former inmates, who are among 6,112 released nationally at the beginning of the month, are now on supervised release and will begin the often rocky search for jobs, housing, and stability.
"The majority of this particular population that is coming out of prison, they are going to lack a high school education," said Donnie Couch, the CEO of D.C. Counseling and Consulting, a Hickory Hill-based drug and alcohol treatment center that works with the criminal justice population. Couch works with men and women on referrals from state and federal prisons, attorneys, and word-of-mouth.
"These people are going to lack marketable job skills and parenting skills," Couch said. "They are going to be unemployed. They are going to have substance abuse issues as well as mental health issues, and the majority of them are going to be homeless."
The release of these prisoners, a fraction of the 46,000 eligible for resentencing, follows a period of increased national scrutiny of the "mandatory minimum" penalties implemented during the war on drugs, policies that have come under criticism for unfairly targeting minorities.
Though Couch, who has worked with former state and federal inmates for 34 years, is supportive of the adjustment of federal drug penalties ("I think that there has been a disparity [in sentencing] all along, especially when it comes to powder and crack cocaine," Couch said), he notes that the release of an increased number of offenders may strain Shelby County's network of reentry and treatment programs.
These programs are funded by state and federal grants, such as the $61 million allocated to Tennessee in 2015 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
"There is a rising need for resources," Couch said. "I haven't seen the trickle-down of federal dollars to the community-based organizations for the resources that are required to address the needs of this population."
For felons, the margin of error while on supervised release is very small. Reentry programs include support for job training, temporary housing, and mental health treatment services. These programs are often invaluable in helping felons avoid homelessness, medical emergencies, or reoffending — conditions which can prove dire for felons and expensive for taxpayers.
Couch's program, and others like it, use skill-based assessments to help offenders, who may have difficulty finding regular employment due to their status as felons, become entrepreneurs. Former inmates are encouraged, according to Couch, to gain a marketable job skill, get six months' experience in that job skill, and turn that job skill into a small business.
Success stories do happen: Couch recently heard from a former client who has founded a successful small business selling hair-extensions. "If you were a drug dealer, you understand supply and demand," Couch said.
"Just housing someone, just providing a roof, doesn't mean anything," Couch said. "We need programs that understand what drives behaviors and belief systems. The goal is to keep people from returning to the prison system or showing up in emergency rooms."