A vast new study of recidivism by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics finds that 44 percent of the 400,000 men and women released from state prisons in the U.S. in 2005 were arrested again during their first year of freedom. Sixty-eight percent were arrested within three years, 79 percent within six years, and 83 percent within nine years.
Five out of six state prisoners were arrested at least once during the nine years after their release, according to a vast new federal study that takes a granular long view at American recidivism patterns.
The report by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics is the first to use a nine-year window to view criminal backsliding by a large sample group of prisoners released in 2005. Prior studies used three- or five-year follow-up periods.
Using data submitted by both law enforcement agencies and state departments of corrections, the researchers tracked the offending patterns of a random sample of 67,966 prisoners from among the 401,288 prisoners released in 2005 in a total of 30 states.
Among their key findings:
The 400,000 released prisoners racked up nearly two million arrests during the nine-year period, or about five arrests per man or woman.
Forty-four percent were arrested during their first year following release, 68 percent were arrested within three years, 79 percent within six years, and 83 percent within nine years.
Seventy-seven percent of released drug offenders were arrested for a non-drug crime within nine years.
Released property offenders were more likely to be arrested again than released violent offenders.
Eight percent of prisoners arrested during the first year after release were arrested outside the state that released them. That number increased each year—apparently an indication of increasing interstate mobility. By year nine, 14 percent of those arrested were collared in another state.
David Krajicek is a contributing editor of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments welcome.
Seven years after Florida Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet voted to end the policy that automatically restored the civil rights of nonviolent offenders after they completed their sentences, a study estimates that the policy cost $385 million a year, the state spent millions on court and prison costs, had 3,500 more offenders return to prison, and lost the opportunity to create about 3,800 new jobs. Amendment 4 on the November ballot would reverse the policy.
Seven years after Florida Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet voted to end the state policy that automatically restored the civil rights of nonviolent offenders after they complete their sentences, a price tag has emerged, the Miami Herald reports. Florida lost an estimated $385 million a year in economic impact, spent millions on court and prison costs, had 3,500 more offenders return to prison, and lost the opportunity to create about 3,800 new jobs. So concludes a report from the Republican-leaning Washington Economics Group of Coral Gables for proponents of Amendment 4 on the November ballot that asks voters to allow the automatic restoration of civil rights for eligible felons who have served their sentences.
The report was commissioned by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a national criminal justice reform organization that works with crime survivors, to show the economic impact of approving the amendment. The findings estimate the cost of the policy that was fast-tracked into law by the governor a month after taking office in 2011, its impact on crime and its cost to taxpayers. Scott and the cabinet repealed the automatic restoration of rights that had been in place for four years and replaced it with a plan requiring a minimum five-year waiting period before offenders could start the application process to have their voting and civil rights restored. The proposed amendment would restore rights automatically, except for those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense. To come up with a price tag for the policy, economists looked at the data from 2007 to 2011 and compared it with current data. They focused on the recidivism rate, the number of released felons who returned to prison after being released and projected the costs and the impact those felons would have on the economy if they went to work instead.
On the 10th anniversary of the Second Chance Act, veteran corrections administrator and researcher Stefan LoBuglio says attitudes towards prisoner reentry have undergone a “sea change” since the 1990s. But in an extended chat with TCR, he warns of a retrenchment in programming that threatens the overall functioning of the U.S. corrections system.
Last month marked the 10th anniversary of the federal Second Chance Act, which has provided aid for state and federal prisoner reentry programs. President Trump declared April “Second Chance Month” to bring attention to programs that “provide opportunities for people with criminal records to earn an honest second chance.”
To assess the state of prisoner reentry in 2018, The Crime Report spoke to Stefan LoBuglio, who recently completed a three-year stint as director of the National Reentry Resource Center at the Council of State Governments Justice Center. LoBuglio, a former corrections administrator in Massachusetts and Maryland, will speak in Kigali, Rwanda, next week at the Eighth International Conference on Human Rights and Prison Reform.
The Crime Report: Prisoner reentry became a public issue in the 1990s when then-Attorney General Janet Reno called attention to the fact that more than 600,000 prisoners are released back into society every year. What is your recollection of that era?
StefanLoBuglio: There were earlier milestones in this field. One was the early-1970s publication of the review by sociologist Robert Martinson, declaring that “nothing works” in inmate rehabilitation. In the 1970s, we saw suspicion of the corrections system amid the large growth of in-prison population that continued roughly until the year 2000. There has been enormous energy, research and support of the prisoner reentry field, starting at least with Jeremy Travis at the National Institute of Justice near the end of the Clinton administration, and continuing through the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. When I began working in corrections in 1992, the job was usually defined by the mantra “care, custody and control.” When you asked a corrections administrator about recidivism, you’d be told, “That is not my responsibility.”
In the 25-plus years since then, there has been a sea change. When you go to meetings of corrections administrators now, there is talk about adding “community” to the mantra, and there are hundreds of programs under the Second Chance Act and other laws to improve prisoner reentry. It was once called “reintegration,” but the lexicon did change to “reentry” in the 1990s. One question people were asking is why inmates should have the opportunity to get things like college degrees when people in free society didn’t have that access? Reentry was framed not as a question of what inmates deserved but of necessity—they were going to be released and we had to prepare them.
TCR: Another, different, anniversary related to the issue of prisoner reentry was marked this year: the “Willie Horton episode,” which many observers at the time believed was a factor in Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’ loss to Vice President George W. Bush in the 1988 presidential contest.
LoBuglio: Horton was a violent and horrible case that had wide repercussions for the field and led to the retrenchment of programs and facilities that allowed individuals to be released gradually back into the community. There was widespread support at the time for such opportunities for people who were soon to be released. Horton was in a furlough program, but there were also many “work-release” programs that were very popular.
Inmates could get jobs, reengage with their families, and seek the support of those community institutions of interest to them. Those programs had become part of the corrections infrastructure, but they disappeared overnight in 1988, and even 30 years later, they are still absent. For 11 years, I worked in the corrections department of Montgomery County, Maryland,, where we ran such programs, and demonstrated the ability to transition violent and non-violent offenders back into the community for those who were soon-to-be released. In corrections, we are not making the sentencing decisions, but rather dealing with the reality that most individuals will leave at some point after serving their court imposed sentence.
A campaign button from Michael Dukakis’ doomed 1988 presidential campaign. Photo by palemon escobio via flickr
More recently, in following this area for the Council of State Governments Justice Center, I was struck by how few jurisdictions maintain these release-transition programs. Thirty years after the Horton case, with our better technology and communications, we should be rethinking how to incorporate work-release for the people who are coming back to the community.
TCR: Were laws like the one that allowed Horton’s furlough common?
LoBuglio: Such programs were not unusual back then. What was so dramatic about the Horton case was that he was a convicted first-degree murderer. After it happened, there were wholesale cancellations of prison systems’ contracts with halfway houses, and those programs that remained were tightly restricted. The debate shouldn’t be focused on transitioning the most heinous criminals but rather whether the vast majority of people in the corrections system have the opportunity to be housed in places like work-release centers.
In my three years at the Council of State Governments, it was clear that programs in prison to prepare inmates for release are not yet robust. Our national conversation on reentry is focused on community corrections, probation and parole. We haven’t really talked much about re-instituting work-release programs in prison. Remember that well over 90 percent of state and federal prisoners are released at some point, and between nine and 12 million people cycle in and out of jails each year.
More people should have the opportunity to use community resources before their release, under strict supervision. Even programs that purport to provide pre-release service don’t. Years ago, I visited the Baltimore pre-release center that housed about 300 people, but only about 30 or 35 were going out on a regular basis for jobs.
TCR: We hear about prisoners who finish their terms just being loaded on a bus. Is that what really happens?
LoBuglio: It used to be predominantly true, and it still is too often true. They might be given just $40 in “gate money.” Much of the support for better reentry procedures in the early 2000s came from reports that people in solitary confinement literally went from being in shackles and chains to being released into the community. In a good corrections system, you want people to be properly classified, for example starting in medium security general population and being able to have their security classifications “stepped-down” to minimum, and to be placed in work-release programs as they neared their release date.
The retrenchment in pre-release centers and the use of halfway-house beds has had an effect of constipating the overall functioning of the corrections system, and having too many individuals “stuck” at medium classification. There should be opportunities for people in prison to behave well, and that if they play by the rules, they should get commensurate privileges. Behavioral change is most likely to happen when you have a clear set of rules to go by.
Years ago, economist Anne Morrison Piehl of Rutgers University interviewed inmates at the Montgomery County Pre-Release Center and found that most all of them could recite from memory what actions they needed to perform to even receive small benefits. Her paper for the conservative think tank Manhattan Institute called the “Powers of Small Rewards” is a reminder that good corrections involves setting up a clear and fair system of rewards and sanctions to encourage behavioral change. If you have the possibility of getting work-release status for a person serving, say, five to seven years, that is a powerful inducement.
Studies of causes of disturbances in prisons have put lack of programming and lack of fairness for inmates at the top of the list. We’re not running correctional institutions as safely as we could. Doing it well provides an element of safety for corrections officers as well as for inmates.
TCR: We’ve mentioned the Second Chance Act. Some people may not realize that it was proposed and signed by President George W. Bush and was pushed by conservatives such as the late Charles Colson.
Editor’s Note: The late Charles Colson, an aide to President Richard Nixon, served seven months in prison in the Watergate scandal and later founded the Prison Fellowship.
LoBuglio: Yes, the Second Chance Act was a bipartisan measure that was co-sponsored by Vice President Mike Pence when he was in Congress in 2008. The main sponsors were Republican Rep. Rob Portman, later director of the Office of Management and Budget and now a U.S. Senator, and Senator Patrick Leahy from Vermont. There was a remarkable bipartisan consensus for Second Chance, supported also by faith-based organizations.
The law was an acknowledgement that the federal government has a role in determining what works to reduce recidivism. There was a recognition that recidivism rates of people who had been in prisons and jails was too high. Also, states and localities didn’t have the ability to do the research and development. The Second Chance Act helped establish research in this area. The correction system consumes an enormous part of state and local budgets, and almost all of that goes to staffing, building and health care.
The federal system used to be the gold standard in corrections systems, and one part of that was setting the bar high. The National Institute of Corrections [in the Justice Department] plays a role in raising the professionalism in the field. In 2008, there was a recognition that states and localities didn’t have enough information, knowledge and resources to do the experiments to figure out what works in corrections. The legislations provided the funding mechanism for the federal government to seed prisoner reentry of different types across the country. More than 800 programs have been funded.
About $500 million has been spent under the law since 2008. To help create and spread new knowledge, the National Reentry Resource Center was created in the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which has run it since 2009. The spending under the law is a relatively small figure, but it is significant because corrections is an $88 billion annual enterprise – this part of it represents the R&D. Without it, there would be nothing. The law plays the role of a catalyst in reentry. There are about 5,000 total correctional institutions in this country including 3,000 county and municipal jails. Not many states have had a major commitment to rehabilitation. In some states there has been a tradition of good corrections systems. Many states have not been able to keep up.
The federal prison system used to be known as the gold standard in corrections. It’s quite startling to see now how denuded the system has become. That has been true in state after state – a wholesale retrenchment in programming. We now have the ability to rebuild the programming infrastructure based on sound evidence. We are much smarter in 2018, knowing much better what we should see in corrections.
The Council of State Governments Justice Center held a “50-state summit” on corrections last November, when Georgia Supreme Court Justice Michael Boggs talked about significant reforms that the state has taken through Justice Reinvestment but he recognized that almost all of them to date dealt with nonviolent offenders. He explained that the next chapter of this work will need to address violent offenders. In 2018 we should be talking about what we can be doing regarding interventions with violent offenders who will be released. That subject needs a dramatic review. We are risk-averse because of Willie Horton-type cases.
As corrections populations nationwide have declined, we need better research to develop a full panoply of correctional innovations, especially because a large proportion of inmates in some correctional facilities are higher-risk people. Those people present generally more complex and more challenging cases.
TCR: The overall recidivism rate is often summarized as two-thirds to three-fourths of former inmates being rearrested in the three years after they are freed. Do we know if that general picture has changed?
LoBuglio: Some states have been able to reduce their recidivism rates. One way it happens is through changes in sanctioning policies so that there are intermediate steps before someone on probation winds up in custody. We have demonstrated that we’re able to reduce recidivism first and foremost through administrative action (changing revocation policy), but also through behavioral change.
Possibly the best study was done by the Urban Institute of Allegheny County, Pa., which found that participation by one group of inmates in a reentry program reduced recidivism by 30 percent.
What concerns me is that the national evaluations have not been very helpful in providing us with good advice. The challenge is to determine whether there are programs with sufficient quality and substance to make a difference. It is very challenging to maintain high quality programs with sufficient dosage. Some discussions with inmates, for example, may devolve into rap sessions. There are many implementation challenges. It’s difficult to give a probationer or parolee sufficient content to make a difference. People have many demands on them, such as maintaining a family. It’s much easier to help them if they are in a correctional setting.
TCR: Some experts have suggested that we should start preparing inmates to leave prison on the day they enter custody. Is that a worthy goal, and does any place actually try to do it?
LoBuglio: I agree with the theory. Some people even say that reentry preparation should begin when someone is arrested. Ideally, there should be a risk-need assessment of someone as soon as they enter custody and a programmatic plan developed. The best implementation of this that I’ve seen was done by Michael Ashe when he was sheriff of Hampden County, Massachusetts.
There used to be a belief that you can’t start the rehabilitation of individuals until 10 or 15 years down the line. Others say you can’t do much if the person is going to be in jail for only a week. What is the ideal period? This used to be referred as the Goldilocks problem: Is the period to short or too long for rehabilitation, and what is the “just right” period? Well, the answer is “do something” in every case, and recognize that it will be necessarily different based on resources and time remaining.The answer is an individualized treatment plan that takes into consideration sentence length and victims. Some people might have 10 years remaining to serve, but need lots of education and substance abuse treatment. You might have only 50 slots in a program and have to choose between a prisoner who has 20 years to serve and one with six months.
TCR: Where would you say that the U.S. stands generally on prisoner reentry?
LoBuglio: There has been dramatic change in some corrections systems that are paying attention and are focused on change. There have been great gains in the reduction of jail populations, but that can mean more challenges dealing with the people who remain in custody, who are much more difficult to deal with. We shouldn’t be surprised if those people have high rates of failure.
I think we need to look at systemic changes rather than programmatic ones.
We need to change the conditions of confinement, for example, so that some people don’t need to stay in prison so long on the front end, and we can focus on the high-risk individuals who remain there. We need a new type of facility that will wrap in medical and mental health treatment, and we must improve the collaboration between other agencies. We need more businesses as stakeholders. More businesses are rethinking their policies and hiring ex-offenders. It’s new and different to have them at the table—an important part of the conversation on reentry.
We also have more formerly incarcerated people taking part in reentry programs, bringing a level of reality to them.
There are many social service providers involved in prisoner reentry, but the quality of services is very uneven. If there were a rating service like “Yelp” in the social service area, that would be very helpful. It would be good to strengthen the social service community with a smaller number of providers with better quality services.
TCR: Have programs funded under the Second Chance Act been evaluated?
TCR: What do you make of the Trump administration’s interest in prisoner reentry?
LoBuglio: They changed the name of the interagency council established during the Obama administration, to add the term “crime prevention.” It makes sense to have federal agencies working in concert on this issue. The important thing now is for Congress to reauthorize the Second Chance Act, which I’m hoping will happen with all of its bipartisan support.
Ted Gest is Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report and president of Criminal Justice Journalists. He welcomes readers’ comments.
Bruce Western’s analysis of the Boston Reentry Study finds that in the six month after prisoners’ release, most were in poverty and were leaning on government benefits and family support to survive.
Prison is not a healthy place. Many who wind up there aren’t in good health to begin with, and their sentences can exacerbate underlying issues. Solitary confinement destroys already fragile minds. Incarceration robs men and women of their youth, beatings and abuse at the hands of officers lead to injury and even death, and violence between inmates is common enough to pass as normal, reports The Atlantic. The underlying reasons for the vulnerabilities of the incarcerated are poorly addressed by policymakers, and there is little understanding of what that vulnerability means in the society that incarcerates more people than any other. Harvard University researcher Bruce Western’s new book, Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison could add significantly to that understanding, illuminating the role prisons play for the poor and highlighting the aspects of infirmity that mark the lives of incarcerated people, from birth to death.
A review calls Homeward “a gripping study of the totality of the lives of people reentering society [that] also uncovers the role of the carceral system in breaking bodies and minds.” At the heart of the book is the Boston Reentry Study, a longitudinal survey of 122 people released from Massachusetts prisons near Boston between 2012 and 2014. Western and his colleagues followed people over their first year of reentry, maintaining contact with a notoriously difficult population of people to track. They tracked the cohort through homeless shelters, joblessness, and shifting addresses; through psychiatric hospitals; and, for some participants, through downward spirals into drugs, violence, and additional stints in prison. The book aims to “bear witness to the lives of those held captive in America’s experiment with mass incarceration,” Western writes. In the six months after release, most of the Boston Reentry Study participants were in poverty, leaning on government benefits and family support to survive.
Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), chairman of the House committee that oversees Justice Department funding, has proposed increasing a program aimed at reducing state prison populations and recidivism that the Trump administration wanted to kill. The chairman also sought a small reduction in the FBI budget, plus increases for immigration judges and the Trump-supported Project Safe Neighborhoods program.
For nearly a decade, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has supported a concept known as “justice reinvestment,” which encourages states to manage their prison populations better and invest the money that is saved in programs aimed at reducing recidivism.
DOJ has recently been devoting about $25 million annually to the program, a minuscule sum in a cabinet department that has more than $30 billion to spend each year, but still enough to fund work in several states. Arkansas, Montana, North Dakota and Georgia passed legislation this year based on justice reinvestment principles, the Justice Department says.
The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project also pursues justice reinvestment in conjunction with the Justice Department. Pew declines to say how much it spends, but it probably is much less than the federal appropriation. The Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Vera Institute of Justice help run the program.
In February, the Trump administration unexpectedly asked Congress to end federal involvement in justice reinvestment.
The White House said it would rather spend the money directly fighting violent crime and on projects under the federal Second Chance Act that help released inmates reenter society successfully.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions didn’t speak about the program directly, but DOJ watchers noted that given his tough-on-crime rhetoric and his opposition to bills that would reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences, he would be unlikely to have much enthusiasm about a project that aims to reduce state prison populations.
The Trump plan failed its first test on Capitol Hill. On Tuesday, chairman John Culberson (R-TX) of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Justice Department budget released his spending plan for the year starting Oct. 1. It did not seek to kill the program as Trump sought, but rather proposed to increase annual funding for justice reinvestment to $30 million.
It is important to note that the initial DOJ spending proposal, which will be considered on Wednesday by the full subcommittee, has a long way to go through the legislative process in both the House and Senate and could be subject to change.
Still, support of justice reinvestment by a conservative committee chairman should go a long way toward keeping the program intact, given that most Democrats and many Republicans have backed it in the past.
Recently, 68 House members supported continued funding for justice reinvestment. They asserted that states had saved a combined total of more than $1.1 billion under the the program, and that crime has continued dropping in most of the states involved. Sixteen senators signed a similar letter.
Pew reports that 34 states have changed their laws on sentencing or prisons since 2007 under the justice reinvestment initiative. Pew says that “reforms prioritize the use of prison for serious and violent offenses while expanding alternatives to imprisonment for those who can be supervised more effectively and at less expense in the community.”
Asked before Tuesday’s subcommittee proposal about the Trump administration call to end federal backing for justice reinvestment, Pew’s Adam Gelb told The Crime Report that, “The Justice Reinvestment Initiative has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress for the last 8 years, and that’s been because state leaders from both parties have made clear to their federal representatives that consensus-driven policy based on the best available data can deliver a better public safety return on investment.
“We anticipate Congress will continue funding the Justice Reinvestment Initiative as states continue to deliver results.”
Overall, the House subcommittee budget proposal would give an increase to DOJ of nearly $800 million. Among major items included, according to the subcommittee and to the National Criminal Justice Association, are:
An additional 100 immigration judge teams, which along with 100 more judicial teams being added this year “should drastically reduce the immigration case backlog,” the subcommittee said.
For the Drug Enforcement Administration, $130 million additional to help national opioid enforcement efforts and targeting major drug trafficking organizations.
An increase of $23 million for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to help cut violent crime, among other uses.
An $81 million budget reduction for the FBI, which would get $9.3 billion overall. The cut was attributed to lower “construction funding.”
$2.9 billion for state and local law enforcement assistance grant programs including $493 million for Violence Against Women Act programs, $442 million for Byrne Justice Assistance Grants, $255 million for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, 48 million for Reduce Sexual Assault Kits Backlog grants, $100 million for Anti-Human Trafficking grants, $380 million for Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act grants.
Project Safe Neighborhoods, an anticrime program that is a high priority o the Trump administration, would get $50 million, up from $20 million.
The new STOP School Violence Act would be funded at $100 million, primarily for grants to states for violence prevention training for teachers and students, development of anonymous reporting systems for threats of school violence, development of school threat assessment and intervention teams, security assessments, and coordination with local law enforcement. Funds in this program previously were used for academic research, which the Trump administration opposed.
Hiring of community police officers under the COPS program would be reduced from $150 million to $91 million.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.
Former parolees in a Syracuse, N.Y. pilot program lead efforts to help individuals returning from prison adjust to civilian society and reunite with their families. It’s an uphill task that often starts with finding a place to live.
In just one day last year, Charles Rivers went from being a supervised parolee to a welcomed professional in the same state office building where one individual held the power to revoke his freedom.
That day, he was on his final scheduled office visit with his parole officer, known as a “PO,” and he was nervous.
“As a parolee, you look at your parole [officer] as an adversary,” Rivers said. “You go in thinking, ‘I got to go see this guy that could violate me at any time.’ ”
But Karen Loftin, another returning citizen who had worked with Rivers for just over two months at that point in the Syracuse, N.Y., community center that Rivers directs, pushed him into it.
‘You’re going,’” she told him firmly. “‘You’re a coordinator now.’”
Rivers now calls it “the day I came out of the shadows.”
For the past three years, Rivers has overseen PEACE, Inc.’s Emma L. Johnston Southside Family Resource Center. He came there after spending more than 19 years in prison.
When Rivers met with his PO that last time, relief should have been instant. But the nerve-wracking feelings of stress, intimidation and mistrust, even after hearing praise for all he had accomplished were hard to shake—even after purchasing a home, earning a bachelor’s degree, and mentoring parolees.
Even for those who have managed the uphill journey of remaking their lives after years behind bars, it’s a common occupational hazard.
It’s no coincidence that the organization Rivers directs now has as one of its principal missions easing the difficult transition between prison and normal life.
The Emma L. Johnston Southside Family Resource Center offers wraparound services to South Side residents in need. This center, run as an extension of PEACE, Inc., offers a food pantry, computers for job searches and re-entry support for ex-offenders. Photo courtesy The Stand/File Photo
In December 2016, PEACE was awarded a $95,000 grant by New York State to launch a pilot program for family reunification. Many experts in the field say that the struggle of ex-offenders to reconcile with family members who may have spent years or even decades without them is as critical a barrier as finding employment, adequate housing, and even attaining photo identification.
Rivers says it takes time to reconnect, and to figure out what day-to-day life will be like moving forward. The grant allowed Rivers to focus on the needs of offenders’ family members as well.
Loftin, who spent over a decade in prison and has been off parole for 16 years, was hired in February 2017 to serve as the re-entry case manager.
The grant — also awarded to two other cities —allowed each resource center to craft its own plan modeled on the successful New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) initiative launched in 2013 called the Family Re-entry Pilot Program (FRPP).
According to a 2016 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, New York ranks ninth nationally in recidivism. According to the report, individuals released on parole are more likely to be imprisoned again—not for new convictions, but for violating the conditions of their parole.
The aim of the NYC pilot was to reconnect individuals with their families and provide stable housing after incarceration. Because many public housing authorities and private landlords have strict policies that exclude individuals with criminal records from being added to a lease, finding a safe and supportive place to live is a challenge.
When individuals apply for housing, the public housing authority runs a criminal background check of the applicant; everyone 16 or older who might also live there; any biological parent of children who will be living in the household, even parents who do not plan to live there and who are not part of the application.
Rules governing who may be denied are very broad, allowing housing authorities to exclude people it believes will risk the health and safety of other tenants. Federal Law (42 USC § 13661(c)) gives public housing authorities the power to deny people based on criminal activity.
Bill Simmons is the executive director and president of the New York State Public Housing Authority Directors Association. Photo courtesy The Stand.
However, Bill Simmons, executive director and president of the New York State Public Housing Authority, says the Syracuse Housing Authority (SHA) has a long history of embracing individuals with criminal backgrounds, citing a past re-entry job-training initiative, the Altamont Program, as one example.
“We never flat out denied them housing,” he said, noting the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has two bright-line rules: you cannot live in public housing if you are a level-one sex offender or were convicted of producing methamphetamine.
“Outside of that, it was up to the individual housing authorities to have their own policy. Traditionally, we were case by case already,” he said.
On March 3, 2017, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo publicly announced the Family Reunification Pilot Program. In addition to Syracuse, authorities in two other New York cities—Schenectady and White Plains—also launched pilots in partnership with Schenectady County Community Action Program, Inc. and the Westchester Community Opportunity Program (Westcop).
The goal of each pilot was to enroll 12 individuals by year’s end.
Individuals found their way to PEACE by word of mouth.
“Many times, a family member reached out to us from housing who knew of someone that was up for parole,” Loftin said.
Once an individual was vetted by parole, the family member on the lease also had to agree to serve as host. Loftin met with both the potential participant and the lease-holder to go over the program, its requirements and rules.
An agreement was signed and next sent to housing, which then conducted its own review. SHA had the final say if a participant could move into a unit or not.
The clearance of property managers was key, Loftin says, because they are privy to details that may not be part of someone’s official record. They often remember the individual and know the family situation they are returning to.
“Syracuse is a small enough town that if the property manager knows the name, they’ll know any issues that could surround that family,” said Annette Abdelaziz, an SHA grant procurement specialist, whose main job function is ensuring residents stay housed.
Charles Rivers greets a resident one Thursday evening as they arrive to the center to visit the food pantry. Photo by Zachary Krahmer/The Stand
Currently six individuals are enrolled under the grant, having extended-stay guest status, which is a policy adjustment SHA made for enrollees of this initiative. The governor’s release stated that at the conclusion of the pilot program, successful participants could be added to a household’s lease.
By the end of the grant period, PEACE had seen eight individuals enrolled and living in public housing. Two of those eight, however, dropped out of the program by December 2017 — one by choice; and one violated parole and was reincarcerated for a minor offense.
With the goal of 12 parolee participants falling short, the stipulation on requiring participants to live in public housing was lifted by the state, and the pilot period was extended until grant money ran dry.
In Syracuse, that allowed a continuation into mid-February 2018. In White Plains, that extended into April 2018, but with no set closing date because additional avenues of funding had been incorporated into its plan. For example, two of the 12 participants were veterans and funded through HUD-VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) vouchers, an exception HUD allows for veterans with convictions.
With removal of the requirement of living in public housing, Syracuse instantly jumped from six participants to 17, because of PEACE’s long-standing practice of supporting individuals’ re-entry. Rivers said he was able to pull participants from that pool and bring them into the pilot.
All three cities regularly stayed in touch over the course of the pilot, and staff in both Syracuse and White Plains noted that Schenectady’s initiative never seemed to take off. Staff with the Schenectady Community Action Program declined to speak for this story.
By March of this year, the state asked only Syracuse and White Plains to submit for a grant renewal.
The problems faced in enrolling participants provided a few lessons learned.
In the weeks leading up to being released, prisoners are asked to provide an address. Typically, they give a family member’s, spouse’s or partner’s home address. In Syracuse, if there’s no family immediately available to contact, they’ll often end up at the Rescue Mission.
James Rivers, Charles’ uncle, an ex-offender, sits at a computer in the center’s public computer lab, offered for residents to complete online job applications and print resumes. Photo by Zachary Krahmer/The Stand
When released, they’re given $40 and a bus pass to return home. Rivers describes this as “the symbolic 40 acres and a mule.”
Next, they have 24 hours to report to parole, where an assessment of their mental health and level of risk to the community is conducted.
An individual’s most urgent needs during the transition are housing, health and income, says Bruce Western, author of the forthcoming “Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison.” The book, scheduled to be released May 15, examines what individuals face upon returning home through detailed accounts from more than 100 individuals on probation.
Researchers on Western’s team also spoke with family members.
In these in-depth interviews, conducted five separate times along the span of a year, participants in the book’s study shared that probation officers chiefly focus on compliance and monitoring.
“For most, we found that there was no process with probation to develop a plan and tackle priorities,” Western said in a phone interview with The Stand, noting only a few went above that level to also discuss with a probationer goals for the year ahead. “There is a deficit of that kind of support.”
Western calls it an unmet need right now.
Rivers and Loftin would agree. When working with their clients, they first share: “We are not your parole officer.”
“After telling them that, the air clears,” Rivers said. “It’s like a big sigh of relief, and in that meeting, we can tell tension has left the room.”
In describing a successful model, Western, who also teaches sociology at Harvard University and is co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab, says case managers would engage parolees for long periods of time, serving as advocates.
“Coercive treatment is a difficult model,” Western said. “This type of role should involve noncriminal justice actors that don’t wield the threat of arrest and revocation. People view it as a continuation of surveillance and control, and many times we heard from respondents that ‘the system just wants to make money off of us.’”
For this pilot, gaining such trust took time.
“If they can feel it, they will be willing to work with you,” said John Fuller, who oversees the pilot program in White Plains, N.Y., stressing that consistency is key.
“You have to be able to follow up and deliver something tangible.”
He said if released offenders trust the case manager, they’ll pass on the referral to others.
Fuller says that, once enrolled, the majority of his new participants exhibit what he terms “re-entry malaise,” where people struggle with their self-worth, settling for their current limitations.
In an open group discussion with Syracuse participants in February, one man shared that “you know you are doing your best, but your best is never enough.”
Later, Rivers paused, locking eyes with another grant participant.
“We said one day we’d be out,” he said while maintaining eye contact.
Both walked the yard together and lived in the same cell block, at various prisons, at different points in their pasts.
“On those walks, we said we’d have a second chance, and that time is now,” Rivers concluded.
Next he encouraged the men to share their personal stories in order to illustrate to others what barriers they face in their transition from incarceration to free society.
Re-entry support is not all hand-holding, the case managers note. There is a spectrum with some requiring help as minimal as a bus pass to make a job interview. But for others, support offered by a case manager could be in tackling their staggering issues of self-doubt when rejections seem to be at every turn — “no” from a landlord; “no” to callbacks on potential jobs; even “no” to requests to reconcile with an estranged child.
Karen Loftin, 52, was hired by PEACE under the Family Reunification Pilot grant to work as the program’s re-entry case manager. She worked one-on-one with each ex-offender to support their needs during transition from prison back to their family. Photo by Zachary Krahmer/The Stand
For Loftin, patience is what she stresses to each of her clients. “It takes time to get back to a sold foothold,” she tells them. “But when parolees come home from prison, they want everything back immediately.”
She adds that society tells them the same thing: Be productive now.
“That’s where the frustration comes,” Loftin said of her clients’ feelings, “and as a case manager that’s where I come in and can be advantageous and tell them ‘listen, it’s not going to happen overnight.’”
It takes time.
Lots of time.
Loftin says the “top priority” is to ensure they meet their parole conditions.
“Whatever the commissioner said for you to do upon release — education, drug treatment, counseling — everything else has to be met around those.”
She gives an example. Several clients wanted jobs because they felt having money in their pockets was empowering, but if assigned by parole to be in a substance-abuse program four days a week, you first have to complete the program, she says.
This works as good discipline, discouraging hopes of the quick fix. “That hustling mindset,” she began, “has to be changed. While those actions may be quick money, they come with greater consequences. Let that patience have its perfect work to get a greater reward.”
Fuller has also found this to be a population full of fear.
“They are afraid to fail, afraid of rejection,” Fuller said. Some he has worked with have such high levels of anxiety and post-traumatic stress that they aren’t mentally ready for a group training.
Even scheduling a meeting during peak office hours when foot traffic is high is too overwhelming.
In substance-abuse counseling, there’s a common saying. “Recovery is the bridge back to life,” Fuller said. “But if you’ve never had much of a life, there’s really no point of reference for what you’re trying to return to. You never had glory; you never had direction; you never had good counsel.”
Deep trauma was the most surprising factor Western learned in the process of interviewing subjects for his book.
“The extreme level of violence people have had to contend with over a lifetime,” he said, “may seem obvious, but we learned that nearly everyone we spoke to had been seriously victimized by violence.”
After Prison, Resilience
He noted many had done very violent things themselves, but they also had serious histories of victimization. Despite this, he said, many displayed resilience.
Fuller says a major component of his role is teaching individuals how to find value in themselves. He said this is something they’ve been missing.
“For some — all of their lives.”
Many are scared to death, he added: Scared to go to that job interview, to try, for fear of failing yet again. “Then when we get that spark, we fan it,” Fuller said with enthusiasm. He noted that success isn’t always employment. “Sometimes success is getting a guy to BOCES to complete a basic course, because sometimes we have to set up wins for them in order to grow their confidence and show them what’s possible.”
Still he views this as a collaborative effort, not simply him telling them what to do. “They have to be invested,” he said “… be part of their own rescue.”
Even if the grant is not renewed, Rivers says, PEACE will continue its re-entry efforts.
“This is something I’ve done since I started and something we were doing before the grant,” he stressed. “The support I offer is not dependent on this grant continuing.”
Neither is the passion the others in this field feel.
Loftin, who spent over a decade in prison and has been off parole for 16 years, says serving as a mentor is ingrained to her core. Rivers’ and Loftin’s past experience, they say, helps to connect with their clients and to show what is possible in the long term. The pair’s combination of having both experienced prison makes them uniquely qualified for this work, making their role instrumental in the grant’s success.
As well, Rivers has earned his master’s degree in social services, while Loftin is pursuing her master’s.
For housing, grant continuation is a major factor in future approval of a tenant with a criminal background.
“A participant’s willingness to participate in case management services is an important indicator of their commitment to change,” said Annette Abdelaziz, the SHA’s grant procurement specialist, whose main job function is ensuring residents stay housed.
Currently, three potential enrollees serving out their sentences are in the pipeline to join family in public housing when up for parole. SHA says no decision to approve their move will be made until a release date is near.
The stall is due to the uncertainty of the grant. If the grant is not renewed, SHA staff would not confirm if their efforts will cease, noting that decisions on individual approval will continue on a case-by-case basis.
“While we want to ensure the case management will be there,” Abdelaziz said, “we won’t tell people ‘no’ yet.”
This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story published in The Stand, a community newspaper produced in Syracuse, NY in partnership with S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Ashley Kang, director of The Stand, is a 2018 John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Justice Reporting Fellow. Readers’ comments are welcome.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has named David Muhlhausen to head the Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry (FIRC), established last month as part of the administration’s efforts to bring down recidivism rates. Muhlhausen was appointed director of the National Institute of Justice last year.
David Muhlhausen, director of the National Institute of Justice, will lead the administration’s efforts to bring down the nation’s “unacceptably high” rates of recidivism, says Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
David B. Muhlhausen
Mulhausen has been named executive director of Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry (FIRC), established last month as the successor to a similar panel in the Obama administration.
“Recidivism rates in this country are unacceptably high,” Sessions said in a statement announcing the appointment Friday.
“That means more costs for society, more dangerous work for our law enforcement officers, and more crime. That’s why, under President Trump’s leadership, the Department of Justice is committed to improving outcomes for those reintegrating into society who want to abide by our laws.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions named David Muhlhausen, director of the National Institute of Justice, executive director of Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry (FIRC).
Attorney General Jeff Sessions named David Muhlhausen, director of the National Institute of Justice, executive director of Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry (FIRC). Ja’Ron Smith, Domestic Policy Council Director of Urban Affairs and Revitalization, will be White House liaison to the council. “Recidivism rates in this country are unacceptably high,” Sessions said. “That means more costs for society, more dangerous work for our law enforcement officers, and more crime.” He said DOJ “is committed to improving outcomes for those reintegrating into society who want to abide by our laws.”
President Trump established the council last month, the successor to a similar panel in the Obama administration. Muhlhausen became NIJ director last year. Previously, he was a research fellow in empirical policy analysis at the Heritage Foundation, where he worked since 1999.
A Colorado program called Work and Gain Education and Employment Skills has helped parolees get education and work skills and has a low re-arrest rate, says an Urban Institute report.
Why has crime declined in the U.S. over recent decades?
A new Urban Institute report on a Colorado program called Work and Gain Education and Employment Skills (WAGEES) program, suggests the role played by communities affected by crime in developing their own public safety strategies is consequential.
Early results of the program, created in 2014, shows that only 2.5 percent of WAGEES program beneficiaries have returned to prison for committing new crimes, according to Ryan King, a co-author of the report.
In an article for The Hill, King argued that community organizations which invest in diverse strategies such as economic development, treatment and counseling, healthy neighborhoods, and expanded green space have been a critical factor in reducing violent crime.
He adds that focusing public safety investments narrowly on policing and incarceration strategies, which may not necessarily align with community needs, can contribute to existing disadvantage and instability. States spend millions of dollars annually to arrest and incarcerate people in some neighborhoods, while ignoring many of the underlying causes of crime: the lack of health care, housing, economic development and social services.
Colorado’s WAGEES program provides an example of how to do better, King writes. The program, a strong partnership between the Colorado Department of Corrections and local faith and community-based organizations, funds organizations to facilitate successful reentry and decrease the recidivism rate of medium to high-risk people on parole. The grants fund community programs that help those on parole get high school diplomas, industry-recognized credentials, long-term vocational or postsecondary education, and employment.
King says the program can serve as a model for other states. A recent national poll by Lake Research Partners shows broad public support for a wide range of community-based reforms and services to improve public safety.
A Texas woman on probation said she had no idea that she was breaking the law by voting, and got a five-year prison term. Critics say that restrictions on felons’ voting rights keep away eligible voters.
Crystal Mason, the Texas woman on probation who got five more years in prison for voting illegally in 2016, said she had no idea she was breaking the law. The confusion over felons’ voting rights is not limited to Mason’s situation or to Texas, reports Stateline. State felon voting laws vary widely. Some states bar people from voting only while they are in prison, while others deny voting rights to people who are still under the supervision of a probation or parole officer. Some prohibit convicted felons from voting for the rest of their lives, unless they receive a pardon from the governor. Only Maine and Vermont have no restrictions.
Nicole Porter of The Sentencing Project, which advocates ending felony disenfranchisement laws, said that in Texas, former Gov. Rick Perry, now the U.S. Secretary of Energy, is partially to blame. In 2007, Perry vetoed a bill that would have required the state to notify felons in writing when they were eligible to vote and include a voter registration form. “It’s the confusion that many states create over whether people have the right to vote … that created the opportunity for this woman’s incarceration,” Porter said. Blair Bowie of the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C.-based group that works on election-related issues, said restrictions on felons’ voting rights likely keep away eligible voters. While an estimated 6 million felons are ineligible to vote, there are many more people with past convictions who may be scared away by forms that threaten jail time for those who vote illegally but don’t explain who is disqualified.