More Prosecutors Help Convicts Expunge Records

Said Terry Curry, the prosecutor in Marion County, In., which includes Indianapolis, “If an individual has stayed out of the criminal justice system, then why should they continue to have that stain forever?”

In a new focus on helping people with criminal histories participate in society successfully, at least 20 states have created or broadened records expungement laws since the beginning of 2017, says the Collateral Consequences Resource Center. Although law enforcement officials have traditionally opposed such measures, citing belief that records are vital to public safety and support for crime victims, a growing number have begun to recognize that criminal records can hinder self-sufficiency and help trap people in cycles of crime, the New York Times reports. Increasingly, prosecutors are endorsing mercy through record suppression. Said Terry Curry, the prosecutor in Marion County, In., which includes Indianapolis, “If an individual has stayed out of the criminal justice system, then why should they continue to have that stain forever?”

Though the paperwork burden for expungements has fallen mostly on private lawyers and nonprofit legal clinics, South Florida prosecutors hold events intended to help people wipe away records of arrests but not convictions. A district attorney in rural Louisiana leads information sessions about expungements for some felony convictions after a 10-year waiting period; and authorities near Fort Bragg, N.C., attracted about 500 people to an expungement event last year. Last month, the Brooklyn district attorney promoted “Begin Again” events, where people were invited to “clear your record of a misdemeanor marijuana conviction or warrant.”  Some places have made expungement deliberately simple, while others have complicated approaches that may require legal aid or court hearings. Margaret Love of the Collateral Consequences Resource Center said clemency and expungements are part of the criminal justice process for a reason. “It ought to be something that prosecutors welcome and use to their advantage to create criminal justice success stories, to advertise criminal justice success stories,” she said.


‘Never Give Up:’ A Returning Citizen Finds Hope After Prison

Obtaining a steady job has been a struggle for former Syracuse, N.Y. parolee Shallah “Brooklyn” Beal, who was released in 2016 after serving three years for assault. But he discovered that the first, and hardest challenge, is to break down the emotional walls he built in prison—and learn to trust in himself.

By his own account, “Brooklyn” Beal has “trust issues.”

He tells his story haltingly, slowly, incompletely— part of the process of getting over the issues that defined the pain-packed 40 years lived by the man born Shallah J. Beal. Some days he is upbeat, almost chatty. Other days, he borders on morose, and a talk with Beal feels dark.

He has his family (two daughters), a girlfriend and an apartment with his brother.

Missing from that list: a steady job.

“I didn’t go to school to work at McDonald’s,” he said, noting he’s taken civil service exams, but still hasn’t found steady work.

Not for lack of trying.

This summer he earned three certificates at the Syracuse Educational Opportunity Center, becoming OSHA-10, OSHA-30 and lead-certified, all of which are construction health and safety trainings.

“I’m told those certificates will go a long way in making me desirable for future construction jobs,” he said. “But I don’t wait for them to call me because then nothing would happen. I call every week — every Monday — to make sure they know I’m seeking work.”

Finding a job is one of the hardest things for parolees like Beal, who was released from prison in 2016 after serving three years for assault. An Urban Institute study found that only one in three parolees had found a job within two months of release.

And difficulty finding work is a key factor in whether a person released from jail is arrested again, the Bureau of Justice Statistics concluded in 2018.

The bureau tracked more than 400,000 people released from state prison in 2005, and found that 83 percent were arrested at least once by 2014, according to its 2018 report. Blacks had the highest recidivism rates, at nearly 87 percent, and male parolees were more likely to be re-arrested than females, the study also found.

Opening up helps Beal. Although talking doesn’t come with a paycheck, it does inspire self-reflection and a measure of optimism.

That’s part of the goal PEACE Inc., a local community service agency whose primary mission is to help individuals and families living in poverty, has in engaging men like Beal.

Charles Rivers

Charles Rivers returned to Syracuse in 2012 after serving 19 years, 9 months and 4 days in prison.Photo by Zachary Krahmer/The Stand

At PEACE’s Southside Family Resource Center, Beal speaks up around others at the encouragement of the center’s coordinator, Charles Rivers, who spent three decades in and out of prison. Rivers’ own journey has seen him evolve from a withdrawn ex-con to a confident advocate, comfortable leading groups of strangers through intimate discussions.

Rivers says one of the hardest things to endure for ex-offenders is coming out of jail when there’s no family or friends to greet you, and nowhere to go. PEACE makes sure Beal has that, and a friend when he might think there is no one.

Beal completed a three-year parole term at the end of 2017, and when he first arrived at PEACE, he was guarded and quiet. Many of the members knew him as someone who would come to PEACE to chat briefly with those he knew and then go about his business.

But after some time, he took to more people and started to relax. He is still private. He was not comfortable with reporters visiting where he lives, preferring to meet at PEACE. He also promised to connect reporters with his oldest daughter. He never did.

Emotional Walls

He says being jailed repeatedly, dealing with family and friends’ deaths, and being away from his own children built the emotional walls around him.

“That’s one of the things I’m most happy about,” Beal said. “I told myself I’d open my mouth more, and I am. I want to tell my story. That’s the whole reason for this. I got trust issues. … I been through some real (stuff) a lot of people wouldn’t understand. But I am getting better with who I’m talking to.”

Middle school and puberty were tough for Beal. He was sent to a juvenile facility for defending his mom from her abusive boyfriend, he said. More assault charges followed. He was last charged for assault in 2013.

Beal’s nickname comes from growing up in the projects of Brooklyn, New York, during the 1980s and 1990s. Those decades were the worst years to grow up in the city, Beal said. Crack, cocaine and PCP were all out of control.

“It was hell,” he said when describing the drugs and killings that surrounded him.

Born when his mother was 16, his grandmother assumed full custody. Beal credits her for raising him. His mom was one of 10 siblings. He has over 50 cousins. His household was always crowded — with an average of three people to a bed, he said.

Beal has suffered a lot of loss. His mother died recently, and he lost several friends last winter and spring, including one who was shot and killed at a party in Syracuse. Beal said he had thought about attending the party.

His first brush with trouble was at age 12, when he said he stabbed his mother’s boyfriend after one of the many times she was beaten. He said he doesn’t remember how many times he was sent to jail before he was given a chance in the summer of 1994 to attend Cayuga (NY) Community College. He received his associate’s degree in business administration.

But he fell in and out of trouble again, the last time in 2013 when he was convicted for assault and gun possession. The three years in state prison that followed, combined with participating in programs and playing basketball, changed his mindset. He knew he had to get out of the projects, get out from under a “black cloud,” and start fresh.

Over the last year, PEACE used a $95,000 state grant for a pilot program to help just-released offenders reunite with families in public housing, which has strict rules limiting who is allowed to move in. Experts acknowledge family support is vital to break a chain of repeat offenses.

PEACE used the funds to help people like Beal, who now lives with his brother in private housing, by preparing for a job with resume-building, setting up mock interviews or returning to school, according to the organization. PEACE also provides a place to go, to hang out, to remember good times and to reflect on positive experiences.

Funding ran out for the pilot program in February 2018. The state is still reviewing the renewal application. Rivers said PEACE will continue its role whether or not the grant is renewed.

Beal credits his strength of getting through his lows to memories of his late mother and his two daughters.

“Never give up,” he said. “That’s one thing I do.”

But that isn’t easy. When he tried to get a job before — and again now — he becomes frustrated.

“That’s when reality hit, and I had a reality check,” he said.

Surviving in Prison: “Fight or Flight”

He describes prison as a place where you activate “fight-or-flight” survival mode. He said he has had to re-learn what it meant to strive for things like a steady job.

Beal says now he just wants to reach his goal: to be “comfortable.”

One threat to that “comfort” is being around the same things that got him in trouble in the first place. While he was incarcerated, Beal said he was around a lot of fighting, drugs and homemade alcohol.

“Being around all that is something I don’t want to keep doing,” Beal said. “I’m trying to make smart choices. I ain’t on no block or on a corner. I know the consequences of what can happen.

“I’m a grown man now.”

Beal has big goals for his future, his family, and what he wants to achieve over the rest of his life. He has two daughters he talks to every day. His first-born is 22 years old and set to graduate from Buffalo State in May.

“That’s my motivation,” he explained. His second daughter lives with his aunt in Brooklyn, and is just six. He hopes that one day they can all be reunited and live happily together as a family.

“I love my family,” he said. “They’re my rock.”

He wants to be someone they can look to. He is talking his way through it, feeling better.

“I’m not far,” Beal said, “from being where I want to be.”

This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story published in The Stand, a community newspaper produced in Syracuse, N.Y., 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. Click here for an earlier story in The Stand’s “Prison-to-Family series. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Johnson v United States: Three Years Later

The Supreme Court struck down a part of the Armed Career Criminal Act that permitted sentencing enhancements for repeat violent offenders in 2015. But the debate over its impact on public safety and recidivism continues, pitting Attorney General Jeff Sessions against proponents of sentencing reform.

In at least two speeches this August, Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the consequences of a three-year-old Supreme Court decision “devastating for Americans.”

He was referring to Johnson v. United States, a 2015 ruling in which the Supreme Court struck down the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), finding it unconstitutionally vague.

ACCA imposes sentencing enhancements on repeat offenders who commit crimes with guns. Specifically, under ACCA, a defendant who is convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm and who has three or more prior convictions for serious drug offenses or violent felonies is subject to an increased prison term of at least 15 years.

The residual clause had included under the definition of “violent felony” any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year that “involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

After the decision in Johnson, individuals sentenced under ACCA’s now-defunct residual clause filed petitions for collateral review, a procedure that allows prisoners, within certain constraints, to ask a court to amend their sentences. Additional follow-on litigation to Johnson has involved questions about other aspects of ACCA’s “violent felony” definition, as in next term’s United States v. Stitt, as well as vagueness challenges to definitions of “violent felony” in other statutes, as in last term’s Sessions v. Dimaya.

But even as these and other challenges play out in the courts, Johnson’s real-world consequences in the three years since the case was decided raise other questions about recidivism, re-entry and policy.

For example, have people sentenced as career offenders and released early after Johnson gone on to commit more crimes? If some have, are certain, less vague sentence enhancements — as Sessions has recommended and as new legislation introduced by two Republican senators would impose — the proper “fix” to Johnson?

This post looks at some of the different factors at play.

Recidivism and Reentry After Johnson

In his speeches, Sessions indicated that Johnson “has resulted” in more than 1,400 inmates obtaining early release from sentences originally enhanced for prior convictions under ACCA’s residual clause. Of this population, he said, 600 have been arrested again.

Sessions highlighted certain crimes. For instance, in a speech on Aug. 1, he discussed six individuals who allegedly went on to commit murder, rape and aggravated assault after their release.

“Releasing repeat offenders has consequences,” he said.

Sessions called this recidivism rate “staggering” and “likely an underrepresentation” of illegal activity. He also cited a 2016 U.S. Sentencing Commission report on recidivism that found a 69.5 percent recidivism rate for people sentenced as career offenders, including those sentenced under ACCA.

Sentencing-reform advocates question the conclusions Sessions drew from his data.

Priya Raghavan of the Brennan Center for Justice observes that it’s unclear from Sessions’ speech what offenses caused the rearrests. She also suggests that the individuals specifically mentioned by Sessions are not representative of the entire population of 1,400 released prisoners. She points to two studies by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the one on recidivism mentioned by Sessions and one on career-offender sentencing enhancements.

The second report indicates that the most frequent “most serious” offense committed by people sentenced as career offenders who were rearrested was assault, not homicide or rape. The report also reveals that the percentage of rearrested career offenders who had assault as their most serious new charge (24.9 percent) was the same as for non-career offenders.

Raghavan clarifies that assaults are not all violent; simple assault “typically involves only a verbal threat against another person.”

The career-offender report does not include the percentages of rearrested career offenders who had homicide or rape as their “most serious” recidivism offense. However, the recidivism report shows that homicide and rape were the “most serious” post-release offenses committed by only 1.3 percent and 1.9 percent of all rearrested offenders, respectively. It’s not clear how many homicides and rapes were committed by people sentenced as career offenders, but Raghavan believes these low rates suggest that only a small percentage of the 600 rearrested prisoners released after Johnson committed such crimes.

Even for those who have recidivated, the extent to which being released early after Johnson contributed to their recidivism remains unclear. Amy Baron-Evans, the national sentencing resource counsel for Federal Public and Community Defenders, adds that the proper comparison for recidivism by those released early after Johnson would be with recidivism by those who served full sentences under ACCA’s enhancement.

It is “too early” for such an analysis after Johnson, but Baron-Evans points to a third U.S. Sentencing Commission report, “Recidivism Among Federal Offenders Receiving Retroactive Sentence Reductions: The 2011 Fair Sentencing Act Guideline Amendment.”

Although focused not on those sentenced as armed career criminals, but on drug offenders who received a sentence reduction after the Sentencing Commission gave retroactive effect to an FSA guideline amendment for certain drug offenses, the report reveals “no difference in the recidivism rates of offenders who were released” early and “similar offenders who served their full sentences.”

To confront recidivism, Sessions called on Congress to “fix the law so violent career criminals are not let out of jail early.” But Raghavan contests the implication that longer sentences will lower crime rates.

A Brennan Center report, “How Many Americans Are Unnecessarily Incarcerated?,” reviews social science that “indicates that in the worst case scenario, longer lengths of stay produce higher recidivism rates, while the best case scenario points to diminishing returns of incarceration on public safety.”

John Seibler, a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, suggests that longer sentences can reduce recidivism somewhat because individuals “age out” of criminality. However, echoing Raghavan, Seibler reports “general consensus” among researchers about the importance of prison programming toward reducing recidivism.

And indeed, to the extent that inmates released after Johnson have recidivated, that may be in part because they did not receive re-entry programming, despite the existence of policies promoting such support.

According to a 2007 program statement, the Federal Bureau of Prisons claims that the reduction of inmate recidivism is an objective of its Release Preparation Program. This program includes classes on different topics, such as employment and personal finance. Inmates “should enroll” in the program “no later than 30 months prior” to release. Additionally, a “unit release preparation phase” provides inmates with individual assistance from staff, which “usually begins in earnest” 11 to 13 months before release. This phase includes a focus on concrete “release plans” that address aftercare, conditions of supervision, release destination, relocation, residence and employment.

Inmates bringing Johnson claims for shortened sentences were often not in the final 13 or even 30 months of their original sentences. As a result, they did not all receive adequate re-entry planning before they were released, according to Benji McMurray, an assistant federal public defender in Utah. McMurray adds that the bureau rebuffed his attempts to coordinate important late-stage programming for his Johnson clients.

Bureau policy does state that “inmates are encouraged to participate in RPP courses throughout their confinement,” but McMurray says his clients report that meaningful opportunities did not always exist or were not helpful. Todd Bussert, an attorney in private practice with more than 20 years’ experience addressing issues related to the bureau, including as a member of the Sentencing Commission’s Practitioners’ Advisory Group, says of the bureau’s re-entry services that “a chasm between policy and practice” exists, so that the stated policy is not a “true barometer” of what is available to prisoners.

McMurray’s and Bussert’s anecdotal concerns find support in the Office of the Inspector General’s 2016 Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Release Preparation Program. The report, which was not focused just on those released as a result of Johnson, indicates that the bureau “does not ensure that the RPP meets inmate needs” and “releases many inmates who have not completed the RPP.”

Despite recidivism by some after Johnson, there are success stories as well. McMurray reports that clients of his have gone to school and joined the work force. One now runs a mechanics business.

Congressional Response

Earlier this month, two Republican senators, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, introduced the Restoring the Armed Career Criminal Act to, as they wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, “fix the law that was struck down.” In their press releases announcing the proposed legislation, Hatch and Cotton mentioned victims in their states whom Sessions also discussed.

According to a one-pager about the legislation, the act “would do away with the concepts of ‘violent felony’ and ‘serious drug offense’ and replace them with a single category of ‘serious felony.’ A serious felony would be any crime punishable by 10 years or more.”

Brian Colas, Cotton’s general counsel, and Baron-Evans agree that this new legislation would avoid the vagueness problems of the original ACCA residual clause. They disagree on how broadly the law would sweep. Whereas Colas points to the fact the crimes must be punishable by 10 years or more, which he takes as a proxy for the high seriousness of an offense, Baron-Evans worries about the many people regularly sentenced to less than 10 years but for whom 10 years or more would represent a statutory maximum.

Raghavan suggests that subjecting drug offenders to the same sentencing enhancement as violent offenders may not be warranted based on recidivism rates. In its 2016 report on people sentenced as career offenders, the Sentencing Commission split individuals into three categories: career offenders with only drug-trafficking offenses, those with only violent offenses, and those with mixed offenses.

People sentenced as career offenders with only drug-trafficking offenses had a lower recidivism rate than those in the other categories. Among those who did recidivate, those with only drug-trafficking offenses “tended to take longer to do so” than those in the other categories. Additionally, “offenders in the other two pathways who were rearrested were more likely to have been rearrested for another violent offense” than offenders with only drug-trafficking offenses.

The next step for the legislation is the Senate Judiciary Committee. Colas estimates that it will take six to eight months for this legislation to get through the committee. He notes that the act will be absorbed into a “broader fight” for criminal justice reform in Congress.

Andrew Hamm

Andrew Hamm

At the same time, Seibler observes that “if there’s anything Congress can efficiently pass, it’s a criminal penalty, especially when law enforcement wants it.”

Andrew Hamm, a scholar and commentator on the Supreme Court, writes the SCOTUSblog. A 2012 graduate of Harvard University, where he studied archaeology and government, Hamm previously completed a fellowship at the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy and an internship with the Campaign for Youth Justice. The Crime Report is pleased to reprint this blog article with the permission of the author, and welcomes comments from readers.


Seizing a Second Chance: An Ex-Inmate Brings Hope Back to Her Community

Karen Loftin was a drug addict and prostitute who served 16 years in prison. Today, at 52, she’s working towards a masters degree at Syracuse University while helping other former incarcerees rebuild their lives.

Karen Loftin sits on the edge of the park bench. She tucks a strand of hair back behind her ear, her long, perfectly manicured nails shining in the afternoon sunlight. A gold chain clinks around her neck. She wears a shirt embossed with one bold word — “Confident.”

Turning to the camera, she smiles unwaveringly. After the shutter goes off, she stands up.

“Take a photograph of me near the tree!” she says, her face lighting up with childlike energy. She runs towards a trunk covered in vines.

Karen’s warm demeanor is one of her most striking traits.

I first met her at PEACE Inc.’s Emma L. Johnston Southside Family Resource Center in Syracuse, N.Y. PEACE is a non-profit organization which provides services to the community, one of which is re-entry support for former prisoners and parolees.

Before I met Karen, I was aware she had served some jail time on drug abuse and prostitution charges, but that was the extent of what I knew about her.

A few days after our first meeting, Karen told me about her involvement with PEACE. Over banana bread and coffee, she told me that after being off parole for 16 years, PEACE hired her to work under the Family Reunification Pilot grant. Her job was to work with each former prisoner and parolee and give them specialized support to smooth their transition from prison to family life.

On our way to the center that morning, Karen told me she was HIV positive. She said she had discovered her status more than 25 years ago after the birth of her second child. She told me in the most matter-of-fact way, but shared talking about her disease hasn’t always been this easy because of the stigma that surrounds her condition.

A regular volunteer at the center, Karen helps people in the community living with HIV by showing them how they can effectively manage the disease and stay positive throughout it all.

“Society says once you’re something, you’re always going to be that. There’s no room to change,” Karen said. “That was one thing I have always had to fight through.”

A Rebel At 12

Karen was born in 1965 on the southwest side of Syracuse to a family of seven children. From a young age, she was rebellious and outspoken. At 12, she was smoking marijuana and constantly getting suspended from middle school.

Her childhood was unstable. Her father was abusive towards her mother, but Karen often found herself taking his side when the police showed up at home.

“I was a daddy’s girl,” she said.

This caused deep cracks in Karen’s relationship with her mother that never fully healed. Her mother passed away while Karen was in prison.

“One of my biggest regrets is that I never got the chance to fix things with my mom. No matter what good things I do in my life, that’s one thing I can’t ever fix,” Karen told me in her apartment, one rainy afternoon.

Karen Loftin

If you come into contact with young people that are struggling, and their dreams have somehow turned, just encourage them to not give up,” says Loftin. Photo by Zachary Krahmer/The Stand

She pointed to a picture of a serious woman with steady eyes. An uncanny resemblance.

“When I look back on my life, I realize she loved me, she cared for me, she supported me, but because of how I was internalizing things, I couldn’t see it that way,” she said.

A few years later, Karen’s mother sent her to live with her dad and his new family in Puerto Rico. Although passing in school was an effortless task for Karen, she felt under-motivated and abandoned.

“I was searching for something. I felt so abandoned at home; I was always in the streets, searching and searching,” she said. “Finding a place where I could be me.”

Karen says she has seen children in her neighborhood who have gone through similar experiences because they feel so misunderstood and neglected.

“The kids internalize these perceptions of who they are and how the world looks at them,” Karen said. “I was one of them.”

After graduating from school with no foreseeable plans for the future, Karen took to the streets. It was there at age 19 that she got into a relationship with a man 10 years her senior.

Karen’s relationship with the man quickly turned abusive after she discovered he was a heavy narcotics user. It was out of shame that she stayed with him, she said.

It was around that time that Karen went to jail for the first time for stealing and cashing checks. She received probation, but violated it at 21. By then, she was doing cocaine, working as a prostitute, cashing checks and doing whatever else she could to support her drug habits, she said.

In 1985, Karen went to county jail, and three years later, served her first prison term. What followed was a series of back and forths in and out of jail. In 1990, Karen’s father passed away and she violated parole. She took off with a man to Connecticut. He ended up becoming the father of her two children.

Karen gave birth to her daughter in 1991 at age 25, and her son in 1994. During this time, HIV was transitioning between gay, white men to intravenous drug users, spreading primarily through shared needles and syringes. Because she was still an active drug user, Karen got HIV tested after each of her pregnancies. The first time, the results came out negative. But the second time, she tested positive.

It was a result that turned her world upside down.

Behind Bars, Again

After discovering her status, Karen had another prison sentence waiting for her. She found herself behind bars, yet again.

Karen wasn’t HIV tested when she entered prison and didn’t end up sharing her status until two years into her sentence.

“I felt like if I could just smoke marijuana in jail and stay under the radar, I’d be fine,” she said. “Telling people about my status would have made me vulnerable. I couldn’t deal with that.”

Karen says during the 1980s, the HIV epidemic was growing at a much faster pace than people could handle. She says she remembers sitting in prison with other women and wondering how they would protect themselves, considering many high-risk groups go to jail.

Shortly after this, the prison Karen started a program to educate and empower women coming in. Karen and her inmates wanted to quell fears about HIV, so they pushed legislation from inside the prison.

Through a close friend she made at the program, Karen met her “guardian angel,” Kathy Bouldin, another prisoner and social activist. Bouldin pushed Karen to disclose her HIV status to the other inmates, as well as become a peer educator for the HIV program.

“It was just so funny because I’d grown up being such a black radical — black power this, black power that,” Karen said. “And here was this white Jewish woman from Brooklyn telling me all I had was a big mouth, and that I should use it for something good.”

Under Bouldin’s guidance, Karen became an educator in the program. She helped develop workshops for new inmates. She grew into her position and says she found her calling. But there were difficult times.

Karen recalls one particular support group for female inmates she spent a great deal of time organizing. But when it came time to talk about HIV, the women weren’t interested. They told her they’d rather watch a movie.

“I was so hurt,” Karen said. “I asked them, do you not want this information? And they were like, no, because we got you for that!”

Karen says she remembers going back to Bouldin and crying. Through her tears, Karen had an epiphany.

“You can set everything before some people and they still wouldn’t know what to do with it. Working with the women, I realized because of their circumstances and how they were raised, they actually didn’t know any better,” Karen said. “They needed someone to speak for them. They needed me.”

Karen says forcing people to speak up about what they are facing is not social advocacy.

“I don’t have a problem speaking up and talking about my status because I know people out there that are afraid and they look to me and people like me for empowerment,” Karen said. “But that doesn’t mean they have to pick up a microphone and declare they are positive themselves.”

Returning Home: The Disconnect

A few months after her epiphany, Karen finished her prison sentence and was able to go back to her family.

By this time, her children were already walking and talking. But from the first day, Karen felt an utter disconnect from her son and daughter. Karen says she remembers her children crying because they didn’t want to leave their old home and family behind.

“They might have assumed that everything they learned from the people who had them when they were young was what they should go by,” Karen said.

Karen Loftin

Loftin, now pursuing a Masters at Syracuse U, hopes to help troubled youth in the community by opening her own resource center. Photo by Saniya More/The Stand

“I felt like any of the values and standards that I was implementing in my household were kind of overlooked, like I was this lady that just came home and got her kids back.”

Time has helped Karen’s relationship with her children, she says. But there are times when she feels like they don’t know each other as a family.

“I still feel like my incarceration is playing a part in our relationship. If I could, I would love to go to therapy with my children, because we never sat down and talked about how me not being in their lives affected them,” Karen said.

“We just never had those conversations.”

Bruce Western, author of “Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison,” examines how incarceration impacts the individual and the family. His recently released book shows how failures of social support trap many fresh out of prison in a cycle of vulnerability despite their best efforts to rejoin society.

The perspectives of women are unique to this study, the author says, with each sharing their specific challenges in reestablishing connections with family, particularly on bonding again with offspring.

“When women enter prison, they have accumulated long histories as victims of sexual and other violence and are also more likely than men to have serious drug problems,” Western writes in his book.

“After prison, they were much more likely than men to be living with family. Finding work was a leading challenge for men after incarceration, but for women employment often took a back seat to staying clean and rebuilding family relationships.”

A few weeks after Karen and I started talking, I met her 23-year-old son Joshua Loftin. I wondered if he felt the same disconnect with his mother.

We meet on the first floor of Bird Library on the Syracuse University campus. He’s wearing a Syracuse sweatshirt and tells me Karen dropped him off. He has her smile.

He tells me about finding out his mother is HIV positive.

“We were in the car, I was about 9 or 10. My mom was talking to my older sister about it, but I didn’t understand what was doing on, so I asked,” he said. “I remember feeling like nothing had changed in that moment. It didn’t matter. This was the only mother I was gonna get, and this was the only mother I wanted.”

Karen says her relationship with her parents has, more than anything, shown her what kind of parent she does not want to be. Raising children after going through incarceration presented its own challenges, though, and Karen rarely discussed her prison experiences or her status with her children.

“I didn’t want to overwhelm them,” she said.

Joshua said Karen only really started to open up about her experiences after he started going to community outreach events with her.

After discovering his mother’s status, Joshua went through a period where he blamed himself for it. Because Karen found out she was HIV positive after he was born, he felt like it was his fault she was living with the condition. He has gotten over it over the years, he says, but it’s still hard sometimes.

“She would sometimes come to our school and talk, and she’d ask my sister and I, ‘Am I embarrassing you at all?’ We would always say ‘not at all. This is what helps you. You’re teaching others. Teaching us; teaching yourself,’” Joshua said.

“I don’t want her to feel like she can’t tell her story because of the way I felt back then.”

Karen says one of the hardest things about parenting has been to ensure her children don’t take to the streets like she once did. At the same time, Karen is wary of stopping them from living their own lives.

“I never wanted my children to think I was afraid of them turning out to be like me,” Karen said. “I want them to grow into themselves.”

Joshua says that at times, he feels that Karen expects unrealistic things from him — expectations he doesn’t think he can live up to, like getting a specific job or living life a certain way.

“She pushes and pushes and pushes,” he tells me. “Growing up, I felt like I wasn’t the golden child that she wanted me to be.”

But Joshua says he understands where his mother comes from. He says he is incredibly proud of how far she has come, even if they bump heads often.

“She can heat up quicker than me,” he says with a laugh. “I know she’s been through way more though, that’s probably why.”

The Stigma of Prison

When Karen left prison about 20 years ago, she faced a lot of stigma, especially when it came to job-hunting.

Since then, she says society has become much more understanding of a person’s criminal history, even though people like her still face discrimination every day, particularly because of their race, gender and HIV status.

“The African-American community continues to dominate the top of every negative list,” Karen said. “Local leaders are somewhat negligent when it comes to addressing the needs of black people.”

Karen Loftin

Loftin with Nicky Jennings, the PrEP Education Specialist at Upstate, co-hosted a talent showcase in April to give local teens a space to perform and to provide HIV awareness education. Photo courtesy The Stand.

Karen says state-funded grants like the one PEACE received, and which is still under review for renewal, aren’t always designed to help the community.

“It all comes down to politics,” she said.

She says working in some sort of human service capacity is the perfect job for someone who has just left prison, because many organizations are looking for people who can form meaningful connections with members of the community going through similar problems. It is also a way for ex-prisoners to redeem themselves by improving their community.

“We need to be willing to seize whatever opportunities we can find, rather than wait to be given them,” Karen said. “By being the generation before them, we started this problem and it’s going to take us to fix it.”

Structural reform is a much-needed development in Syracuse, particularly when it comes to prison management and community outreach, Karen says.

“There is a need for therapeutic assistance, community outreach and counseling, especially for young adults about to move away from home,” Karen said. “This is when they develop their perceptions of the world and their place in it. After that, their way of life is set and it’s harder to change them.”

Not too long after getting involved in PEACE, Karen enrolled at Syracuse University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in child and family studies in 2017. Her degree sits in her living room, illuminated by the lamp next to it. It’s a source of great pride for her.

Karen hopes to use her degree to start her own youth center in the future. She believes there needs to be more centers that provide emotional support and resources for Syracuse’s youth — a place where children from troubled households can feel safe and appreciated.

Through her youth center, Karen hopes to instill a renewed sense of togetherness in her community. Her primary goal is to focus on youth and family development — strengthening relationships between children and their parents.

Gazing at the hail that has unexpectedly started to fall outside her window, I ask Karen if she plans to stay in Syracuse forever.

She smiles for a moment. “I’m here for now,” she answers.

“I recently asked an old friend of mine who owns a business here, why are you still here?” she shared. “You know what he told me? If everyone left, there’ll be no one to keep this town running, and the kids in this community are going to suffer,” she said.

Finding Herself

When Karen was little, she struggled with her dark complexion. It was a source of great insecurity for her.

“One of those days, I remember my grandma pulling me onto her lap and telling me ‘God makes no mistakes. No one is better than you in the eyes of God, but always remember, you’re not better than anyone either,’” she said.

Karen’s confidence is something she has developed over time, and she is well aware that people have judged her and will perhaps never stop judging her.

One of the last times we meet, I ask her what she would say to people who made assumptions about her. She doesn’t think twice before responding.

“I probably wouldn’t say anything,” she said. “I’ve never been one to try and convince someone that I’m someone I’m not. I’ve definitely made some mistakes in my life, and I might agree with some things people say and disagree with others, but I’m not going to have that conversation. It’d be a waste of time.”

Instead, Karen has a message for the whole world.

“If you come into contact with young people that are struggling, and their dreams have somehow turned, just encourage them to not give up,” she says, looking directly into the video camera recording her.

“I think that’s an important thing we can all do.”

Watch a Video of Karen Loftin

See also Part One of the series, ‘The Day I Came Out of the Shadows’

This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story published in The Stand, a community newspaper produced in Syracuse, N.Y., 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.


Five States Prove that ‘Substantial’ Cuts in Prison Populations Are No Pipe Dream

It doesn’t matter if you’re red or blue. If you’re willing to adopt—and pay for—evidence-based reforms, you can match the achievements of Connecticut, Michigan, Mississippi, Rhode Island, and South Carolina over the past decade, according to The Sentencing Project.

Bipartisan collaboration and consistent funding of evidence-based reforms helped slash prison populations in five states with dramatically different demographics and political leanings, according to a study by The Sentencing Project.

The results, charted over roughly a decade in Connecticut, Michigan, Mississippi, Rhode Island, and South Carolina, should be a signal to the rest of the country that “substantial reductions” are possible without endangering public safety, the study authors said.

“We now have evidence that substantial reductions in prison populations are possible in red and blue states,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, and one of the authors of the report.

The analysis found reductions ranging from 14 percent in South Carolina to 25 percent in Connecticut over a period starting about 2007 and ending in 2016.

The reductions “produced a cumulative total of 23,646 fewer people in prison with no adverse effects on public safety,” the report said.

That represented a sharp contrast to the national average over the same period. Although inmate populations have begun to decline, the study cited a recent analysis showing that at the current average nationwide rate of change from 2009 to 2016, it would take 75 years to reduce the country’s prison population by half—and while 42 states have experienced declines from their peak prison populations, 20 of these declines are less than 5 percent.

Moreover, eight states are still experiencing rising inmate populations.

The factors responsible for the declines were different in each of the five states, but the authors identified “key strategies and practices” that all of them shared.

They included:

  • High-profile leadership, bipartisanship, and collaboration among all components of the state justice system;
  • An ability to apply outside technical assistance and research findings to evidence-based reforms;
  • Strong community engagement to drive re-entry and community supervision programs;
  • Reductions in criminal penalties, and the expansion of specialty and alternative courts; and
  • Incorporation of  “dynamic risk and needs assessments” into the sentencing process.

The study made clear that none of these factors alone guaranteed long-term reductions, adding that a sustained effort to reduce the use of prison as primary punishment—often called “decarceration”—required consistent and adequate funding to pay for the reforms.

But the authors said their findings underscored the fact that by developing a “roadmap to decarceration“ attuned to the individual needs and policy preferences of each state, the nation could achieve far greater reductions in mass incarceration than were commonly assumed by most analysts.

All five states were engaged in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative process, spearheaded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Council on State Governments, which was designed to respond to the drivers of prison expansion in each state, and to develop strategies for changes in policies and practices.

“Policymakers around the country have much to learn from the population reduction successes of the five states documented in this report, as well as others that have achieved double-digit reductions in recent years,” the report said.

“(It) reinforces the finding that just as prison populations rose during the 1980s and 1990s due to policy choices, so too can they decline as policymakers adopt targeted goals and strategies.”

The other co-authors of the report were Dennis Schrantz, a corrections consultant and the former deputy director of the Michigan Department of Corrections; and Stephen T. DeBor, the senior policy executive in charge of research, planning and automated data systems for the Michigan Department of Corrections.

A complete copy of the study can be downloaded here.


Slack Starts Technology Training Program for Ex-Inmates

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield offers up his company as the test case for getting prison-trained coders into high-growth start-ups, something that has not worked yet.

Next Chapter is a new partnership the chat start-up Slack has entered into with The Last Mile, a technology training program for incarcerated people, and $800,000 from the Kellogg Foundation, reports The Atlantic. Next Chapter will train and place three “returning citizens” inside Slack as “Quality Engineering Apprentices” and build a process to help them acculturate to one of the most successful start-ups of the last decade, with help from a small support team led by a formerly incarcerated man named Kenyatta Leal. The apprenticeship is split into three parts over a year: Roughly four months at the start-up boot camp Hack Reactor, four months of training, and then four months on the job, after which Slack may hire an apprentice, or help them get a job at another tech company.

Everyone involved with the program believes that if they can make it work at Slack, other companies in technology and far beyond might also begin to hire more men and women who’ve paid their debts to society. The program was announced amid a raucous wave of applause as John Legend, Leal, comedian Robin Thede, and Slack’s CEO Stewart Butterfield took the stage. More than 100 Slack employees have visited California’s San Quentin prison to meet and mentor people enrolled in The Last Mile’s coding program. Butterfield offered up his company as the test case for getting prison-trained coders into high-growth start-ups, something that has not worked yet. “I don’t want to say: This is it. This is a very experimental approach and obviously we hope the experiments work,” he said. “But even to the extent we are successful, which is providing pretty amazing opportunities for a relatively small number of people, we need to create a larger number of opportunities for people. I say we, but I mean us, the country.”


The High Cost of Recidivism in Illinois: $13 Billion Over 5 Years

The estimated figure would be even higher if recidivism had not begun to decline since 2015, thanks to programs aimed at helping former inmates reintegrate into civilian society, according to a new study.

Recidivism now costs Illinois taxpayers over $1.5 billion a year —but the bill would be much higher if the state had not introduced programs aimed at improving counseling and other services dedicated to helping former inmates reintegrate into civilian society, according to a study by the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council (SPAC).

Projected over a five-year period that takes account of “accumulating” costs of sending people back to prison, the bill for recidivism in Illinois will be $13 billion if current trends continue, said the study authors, who based their estimate on the current recidivism patterns of the 59,000 individuals who are expected to be released from prison or sentenced to probation each year over this period.

 The study, which used cost-benefit analysis to arrive at what it called “the true cost of crime,” calculated that each time an inmate returns to prison because of a new crime or a violation of community supervision guidelines, it costs the state $151,662—representing an increase of 30 per cent since SPAC last examined the data in 2015.

Almost half of that cost ($75,408) is attributed to the “tangible and intangible costs borne by victims” of the new crime, according to the study. The resources used by law enforcement, court costs and renewed incarceration account for a third. Indirect costs make up the remainder.

According to the study, criminal history records show that those who recidivate account for a “substantial portion” crimes in Illinois each year.

“Each new conviction, each recidivating event, represents additional victimizations and costs to the system which accumulate over time,” the study explained.

But that estimate was still roughly $1 billion less than estimates of recidivism’s cost in the 2015 study, thanks to a decline in the numbers of those sent back to prison in the three years since.

SPAC, an independent commission of criminal justice stakeholders that reports to all three branches of government in the state, said the decline in repeat offenders was due to “evidence-based interventions,” such as reentry programs and social service counseling, designed to “help put offenders on the path to productive citizenship.”

It warned: “If recidivism is not addressed using research and cost-benefit analysis, the people of Illinois will continue to pay the high cost of maintaining the status quo.”

The studies, completed with the assistance of the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative, offer some important clues for other states dealing with recidivism, according to analysts.

“Illinois is one of many states embracing evidence-based policymaking to make more informed, strategic investments that generate positive outcomes for residents and get the most from taxpayer dollars,” wrote the analysts: Sara Dube, a director of the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative; Steve Lize, an officer of the Initiative; and Alyssa Doom, a senior associate.

In Illinois, 43 percent of those released from prison each year are returned to prison for new crimes or probation violations, and 17 percent will recidivate within one year of release.

The full SPAC study is available here.


Homelessness Called ‘Crisis’ for the Formerly Incarcerated

In a report issued Tuesday, the Prison Policy Initiative found that people who have been to prison are 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public. The report recommended policy initiatives including the prevention of housing discrimination against returning citizens.

People who have been to prison are 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public, according to a report released Tuesday by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI).

In the report, entitled Nowhere to Go, the PPI found that over two percent of formerly incarcerated people are homeless and that “nearly twice as many are living in precarious housing situations close to homelessness.”

The report, which the PPI said was the first national snapshot of homelessness among formerly incarcerated people, describes the problem of homelessness among formerly incarcerated as a “little-discussed housing and public safety crisis.”

According to the PPI study, written by Lucius Couloute, the increased likjelihood that an individual leaving prison will be homeless is an “irony considering that police departments regularly arrest and jail the homeless.”

Couloute said landlords and public housing authorities “have wide discretion to punish people with criminal records long after their sentences are over.”

His study said the problem was “fixable” through targeted public policy measures, including:

  • Regulating competitive housing markets to prevent blanket discrimination;
  • Creating statewide reentry systems to help recently-released Americans find homes;
  • Ending the criminalization of homelessness in U.S. cities;
  • Expanding social services for all homeless people, with a “Housing First” approach.

The full report can be downloaded here.


Ending Crime Checkbox for College Praised by Inmate Advocates

For the first time since 2006, students using the Common Application to apply to college will not need to check a box asking if they have criminal histories. The decision was welcomed as a positive step by advocates of the Ban the Box movement to eliminate barriers to prisoner re-entry.

This fall, for the first time since 2006, students using the Common Application to apply to college will not need to check a box asking if they have criminal histories.

Accepted by over 700 colleges and universities worldwide, the Common App is the country’s most broadly used college application. The change comes following a 10-year campaign to “Ban the Box” by a broad coalition of advocates who claim that the question creates “an undue barrier that harms certain groups of students.”

In a press release, the New York-based nonprofit College & Community Fellowship said that the decision to ban the box “will have tremendously positive effects for college applicants with justice histories, and for colleges that seek to serve increasingly diverse student bodies.”

The criminal history question had not been demonstrated to meaningfully improve campus safety, and many accounts suggested that it deterred those who had been involved in the justice system from seeking higher education upon release.

A 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Education quoted one student with a criminal history who considered applying to a top-tier university: “I started the application process right away, but stopped in my tracks when I encountered the question: Have you ever been convicted of a crime? I thought to myself, ‘Why apply? They are just going to reject me.’”

A study conducted by the Education from the Inside Out Coalition found that for every student rejected by SUNY application committees because of a prior felony conviction, 15 did not complete their applications because they feared checking the box.

The Ban the Box coalition hopes that the Common App’s move will be the first step in a wave of institutional changes. Some colleges and universities still ask applicants to disclose their criminal histories, but most have no set procedure for following up with applicants, resulting in arbitrary admissions practices like requesting access to legally sealed documents and other unpredictable, ineffective criteria.

A Center for Community Alternatives study found that fewer than half of the schools that collect criminal justice background information have official policies in place regarding their usage of the information, and only 40 percent train staff on how to interpret such information.

Vivian Nixon, the Executive Director of College and Community Fellowship and a formerly incarcerated receiver of college reentry services, said, “Upon my release from the criminal justice system, I found myself forced to constantly explain my mistakes as I faced questions about my criminal history on job, housing, and even college admissions applications.”

She added, in a press statement on the decision: “These checkboxes asking me to disclose weren’t just an annoyance – they threatened to derail my success and keep me from being the engaged citizen I longed to be.”

We congratulate the College Board, and look forward to a future where justice and safety are evidence-based, rather than stigma-informed.”

Elena Schwartz is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Recidivism Down 23 Percent in Recent Years, Pew Says

In a new analysis, the Pew Charitable Trusts reports that the share of people who return to state prison three years after release has dropped by nearly a quarter in recent years. The three-year recidivism rate for prisoners released in 2012 was 37 percent, a 23 percent drop from the 48 percent rate for those released in 2005.

In a new analysis, the Pew Charitable Trusts reports that the share of people who return to state prison three years after release has dropped by nearly a quarter in recent years. The three-year recidivism rate for prisoners released in 2012 was 37 percent, a 23 percent drop from the 48 percent rate for those released in 2005. Five-year recidivism rates also fell, Pew said.

Pew calculated the rates from publicly available data from the 23 states that consistently reported prison admission and release data to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics from 2005 through 2015. The dataset accounts for about two-thirds of those released from state prisons nationwide each year. The decrease in recidivism occurred alongside a reduction in reported serious crime. FBI crime data show that the combined national violent and property crime rate dropped 26 percent from 2005 to 2015.