Dreaming Up New Ways to Support the Reentry and Housing of People Involved in the Justice System into Their Communities

Author: Sonia Torres Rodríguez
Date Posted: August 29, 2022

The lack of support from the criminal legal system and the stigma associated with having a criminal record create challenging barriers for people returning from incarceration, particularly when it comes to obtaining safe and affordable housing. The nonprofit Project RETURN (Returning Ex-Incarcerated people to Urban Realities and Neighborhoods) has the urgent mission of helping people who were formerly incarcerated make a positive, permanent return to their communities, families, and friends in Wisconsin. Through their efforts, the organization has seen the difficulties people experience when returning home to Milwaukee County after serving time in prison. Thanks to the $5,000 pro-bono research services they received through the 2020 Data Dream Award from Data You Can Use (DYCU)—the Milwaukee NNIP partner, Project RETURN was able to leverage data to more effectively support people returning from prison in finding stable housing.

In seeking to improve their employment, housing, and substance abuse services, Project RETURN recognized that data could supplement the wisdom of people who have been involved in the criminal legal system and sought to “put numbers behind who we were seeing coming to our doors.” They received the DYCU Data Dream award, which provides in pro-bono services to help nonprofits gather and interpret data to improve the effectiveness of their programs. DYCU, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, Project RETURN, and other nonprofits working in this area collaborated closely to design the study. The research support included two components. The first involved an analysis by DYCU staff of individual-level administrative data from the Department of Corrections. DYCU analyzed the characteristics of the roughly 2,500 people returning from prison each year—three-quarters of whom are Black—and examined the challenges they face during reentry, such as residential instability. For the second component, DYCU supported research led by three University of Wisconsin students who presented secondary data and reviewed literature related to barriers to housing for people returning from jail or prison. Their report covered issues such as landlord perceptions of these individuals, housing costs and barriers to accessing housing vouchers, and restrictions for people on the sex offender registry list. Importantly, one of the students on the research team had been previously incarcerated; through the lens of his lived experience, he strengthened the research by identifying real-world challenges and structural barriers.

This project has demonstrated how different sectors in Milwaukee can collaborate with data to help people succeed in transitioning from incarceration. The Wisconsin Department of Corrections has limited internal analytic staff and resources. It rarely publishes detailed data and analyses and has not regularly shared individual-level data with researchers. Yet as a trusted community organization, DYCU successfully requested these data, enabling them to fill important data gaps on the demographics of the people involved in the justice system and their reentry needs. In fact, once the Department of Corrections saw the students’ presentation and report, the staff became more engaged and provided some edits for the public version. The Department of Corrections has since requested that Project RETURN expand this research to a neighborhood-level analysis and approved a DYCU request for new data on the ZIP codes where people intend to live after release. Project RETURN will use this forthcoming analysis to decide where they should locate their services. The success of this research partnership signals an important long-term shift toward a more collaborative and trusting relationship between the Department of Corrections, DYCU, Project RETURN, and other reentry service organizations, wherein all stakeholders jointly use data and analysis to advance their missions.

Local organizations and advocates have used the findings in the report to justify and inform multiple new avenues for supporting people returning from prison. For example, the Milwaukee Reentry Council—a subcommittee of the local Milwaukee Community Justice Council—has begun to use these data to improve specific housing programs and to help overcome the fear and stigma landlords may have against individuals who were formerly incarcerated. To reassure landlords and reduce their risk in renting to people who may not have a rental track record, the council created a new “good tenant” certificate program that will credential people seeking housing. Based on the findings of the report, the council is also raising funds for a reentry housing bond that would provide guarantees in lieu of security deposits and first and last months’ rents for people who complete the certificate program. In addition, the Milwaukee County Housing Department hired a new reentry housing navigator as part of the county’s strategy to address chronic homelessness with an explicit focus on people returning from jails and prisons.

Conor Williams, chair of the Milwaukee Reentry Council, cites DYCU’s data and analysis as an important “catalyst for the acceleration” of housing supports for people involved in the justice system in Milwaukee County. Additionally, Project RETURN is using the newly available data in the report to raise philanthropic funds to purchase a new supportive housing facility for people returning from prison who are at high risk of homelessness. This facility will work with individuals before their release to explore this housing option, as well as provide mental health, substance abuse, and employment services.

This story was written by Sonia Torres Rodríguez at the Urban Institute. She thanks Amy Rohan, Wendel Hruska, and Conor Williams for their support in drafting this story. Data You Can Use is the Milwaukee partner in the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, a learning network in 30 cities coordinated by the Urban Institute. All partners ensure that communities have access to data and the skills to use this information to advance equity and well-being across neighborhoods.

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