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Eliminating Barriers to Successful Reentry/Reintegration of People Returning from Incarceration by Judge Smith-Ribner (2011-2012)

A Different Approach and Perspective to Offender Reentry/Reintegration:

I

Offender reentry/reintegration, or the process of transition back into society after release from incarceration, is perhaps one of the most important criminal justice issues of the 21st Century.[1] There is a growing awareness of the issues that society must confront with regard to reentry, but there also is a critical need to educate the public about the legal and social barriers that offenders face upon reentry as well as the need for policy advocacy and coalition building around these issues.

It is evident that a new focus on reentry has emerged as policymakers, lawmakers, judges, law enforcement executives, business and faith-based communities and citizens in general are beginning to view the criminal justice system in ways not apparent in past decades.

There is more focus on the need for new strategies that prepare offenders to succeed upon release from incarceration and to become law abiding and productive citizens. This requires strategies to remove and/or eliminate some of the barriers offenders face on reentry that inhibit their chances for success and the ultimate goals of reducing recidivism and promoting public safety.

II

An approach that includes well-planned, reasonable and coordinated reentry strategies instituted and/or implemented through collaboration among all branches of government working with law enforcement, business and faith-based communities and citizens alike is needed to reduce recidivism. Such an approach, if effectively coordinated, will not only reduce crime and promote public safety but eventually will decrease the ever growing corrections costs borne by taxpayers.

This approach, among other steps, requires the methodical process of amending and/or eliminating laws, policies and practices that impose collateral consequences, or additional burdens, upon offenders after they have served their sentence. An example illustrated by Pennsylvania law would be denying an offender the right to work in health care facilities because of the offender’s prior conviction even though the offender poses no threat to patients served by the facilities. (In 2011 the U.S. Attorney General wrote his state counterparts asking them to review their respective state laws that impose collateral consequences, or additional burdens, upon people who have served their sentence. He noted the recent American Bar Association study that documented over 38,000 statutes nationwide (or roughly 700 per state or territory), which impose collateral consequences upon convicted persons.)

The approach also recognizes that collaboration with employers and business communities is necessary to promote more employment opportunities for offenders upon return to their community. It includes the recognition that judges can impact reentry even at the earliest stages of the criminal justice process, such as by imposing educational requirements for an offender to meet before his/her release from incarceration or as a condition of probation; it involves more law enforcement involvement in reentry through youth and adult offender mentoring programs; and it requires inclusion of faith-based organizations and leaders as meaningful partners in coordinated reentry strategies.

III

The need for a new direction and different approach to reentry is highlighted by alarming corrections statistics and findings regarding Pennsylvania, the focus of this paper because in 2009 it had the highest prison population increase than all of the other states in the United States. By the end of 2010, Pennsylvania housed 51,321 prisoners at an annual cost per prisoner of $32,986 as compared to 8243 prisoners in 1980 at an annual cost per prisoner of $11,447. January 2011 “Special Report,” PA Auditor General. The average reading level of all state inmates was just below 8th grade, with approximately 43% of them having less than a high school diploma. PA Department of Corrections, Bureau of Planning, Inmate Profile, 12/31/10).

The state’s prison population increased by over 522 percent between 1980 and 2009, and more than one-half of the growth in the population over the past decade was due to non-violent offenders. As of the Auditor General’s Special Report, thirty-nine percent of the state’s prisoners were classified as non-violent offenders, and fifteen percent were parole violators. By the end of 2014, Pennsylvania will face an almost twenty percent increase in its prison population to 61,146 if a different approach is not taken with regard to the response to reentry. Pennsylvania’s 2011-2012 corrections budget was $1,867,000,000 (27 prisons), and in 1980 it was $110,388,000 (9 prisons). PA Auditor General “Special Report”; Department of Corrections, 2011 Costs & Population Report.

U.S. Bureau of Justice data shows that more than 700,000 persons are released each year from prison, and over sixty percent of them are re-arrested in three years with over fifty percent of them being returned to prison. This country represents 5 percent of the population in the entire world, but it has the distinction of housing 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population, which is greater than any other nation. Recent government reports show that almost $70 billion is spent annually on federal, state and local corrections.

IV

A holistic and coordinated approach to reentry reflects a model that if properly implemented would produce greater results than what currently exists where the 3-year recidivism rate in some Pennsylvania zip codes exceed 50%. PA Department of Corrections, Bureau of Planning, Reentry-PA 2011. Likewise, a July 2010 U.S. Inspector General audit of reentry programs funded by the government demonstrates that a more coherent, coordinated and rational approach to reentry is needed that produces effective and measurable outcomes if recidivism is to be significantly reduced.

 Moreover, the lack of effective reentry strategies along with imposing unreasonable collateral consequences on people who have served their time merely reinforces the stigma associated with offender status. It makes the process of transition from incarceration more difficult in terms of finding a job, reconnecting with families, coping with cognitive behavioral issues, finding adequate housing and more. Also, a lack of effective reentry strategies coupled with collateral consequences makes it more likely that in particular areas an offender will re-offend and return to incarceration. Needless to say, more effective reentry must be a priority as a means to reduce crime and recidivism, prison populations and corrections budgets and ultimately to make communities safer.

On this front, it is worth noting that specific legislation was introduced in 2011-2012 in response to the Widener Law summit on reentry to create a Pennsylvania Inter-agency Council on Inmate Reentry.  The council would include certain state agencies and officials delegated with authority to examine, inter alia, the state policies and practices that impose collateral consequences upon people who have served their sentence and to make appropriate recommendations to the full legislature based on findings made by the council.  This legislation has not yet passed, but  it is a step in the right direction.  HB 333 (formerly HB 2187).

Objectives and Activities:

An increase in public awareness of reentry and the need for reducing recidivism and promoting public safety is crucial, accomplished, in part, through public awareness forums and engagement of stakeholders in policy advocacy and coalition building. Activities might include organizing conferences and meetings to educate the public about the collateral consequences, or barriers, that offenders must confront upon release from incarceration; engaging faith-based leaders and organizations to educate congregants; engaging the judiciary and the legal community to facilitate public dialogue about the court’s role in reentry; meeting with lawmakers to discuss amending and/or eliminating laws that impose collateral consequences upon people who have served their sentence; and working with criminal justice experts, offender organizations, community groups and others on coalition-building around these criminal justice issues. Promoting public safety is the ultimate goal. It affects everyone.

Judge Smith-Ribner
jsmithribner@gmail.com

[1] The term “offender” is used to identify individuals who have been convicted of a crime but given a sentence that does not include incarceration; have been convicted of a crime and given a sentence to include a period of incarceration; have been arrested and the arrest record has not been expunged; or those who have been labeled as ex-offenders, returning citizens, formerly incarcerated persons or felons.

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Coming posts and papers on school truancy and dropout and related issues.