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Using Supportive Housing to Help Solve the Prison Problem

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Throughout the country, prisons are stressing state budgets. Recidivism rates are high, driving costs even higher and reducing public safety. And for the small cohort of state inmates who have very high health care needs, the costs are higher still. Those men and women have histories of mental illness, substance use, chronic illness and homelessness -- and they cycle between the streets and expensive institutions, jails and prisons. But there's a solution that works to tackle the seemingly insurmountable problem of this high-need, high-cost group: supportive housing.

One state has already taken the lead in demonstrating the potential of supportive housing to reduce recidivism and costs. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC) saw the problem and built a supportive housing program for the men and women coming out of Ohio's prisons that would help keep them housed, healthy and stable. The Returning Home Ohio initiative focuses on people being released from prisons who have been chronically homeless -- with priority given to those with severe mental illness, a developmental disability or other ongoing challenges that make services necessary to maintain housing.

"In 2004, the ODRC evaluated its residential options for offenders stepping down from prison and determined that there were offenders who needed longer term housing with wrap-around services not provided by halfway houses or transitional housing," says ODRC Chief Alicia Handwerk. "After extensive discussion and assessment, ODRC determined to collaborate with local experts to develop a permanent supportive housing network. Eight years later, we are still pleased with our decision."

There are several factors making Ohio's supportive housing program successful:

  1. Commitment from state leadership. Since Returning Home Ohio was first under consideration, Ohio has had three Governors and four Directors of the ODRC -- but the state so fundamentally internalized its commitment to supportive housing that changes at the top haven't caused the program to veer off course. It's also been backed at the highest levels of the criminal justice system, including significant support from Ohio Supreme Court Justice and CSH board member Evelyn Lundberg Stratton.
  2. Coordination across state agencies. With the help of CSH, Ohio's criminal justice, housing and behavioral health agencies are working together to target the right people for supportive housing, find them a stable home and coordinate the services they need.
  3. Expert community-based service and housing resources. Returning Home Ohio involves nonprofit organizations in several communities that provide appropriate housing and specialty services for participants.
  4. Good research to track and measure success. Third-party researchers Urban Institute are thoroughly evaluating the impact on public costs, as well as individual outcomes. The complete evaluation results will be available this week.

Reducing prison costs is imperative for states -- and supportive housing is a critical piece of the puzzle. It gives people a second chance to be productive members of their community, while helping keep them out of the prison population. Supportive housing programs like Returning Home Ohio make common sense for governments. More states can and should follow in Ohio's footsteps.