“If we didn’t exist, no one would invent us,” says former New York Commissioner of Probation Vincent Schiraldi. Speaking this week at the Smart on Crime conference at John Jay College, he said the punitive approach taken by probation and parole agencies made them major drivers of mass incarceration.
The punitive approach taken by community corrections agencies around the U.S. has made them major drivers of mass incarceration, a New York conference on justice reform was told this week.
Releasing more individuals under supervisory conditions of probation or parole was meant to reduce America’s high prison population. But insufficient funding, over-zealous officers, and bureaucratic red tape have produced the opposite result, according to participants in a panel at John Jay College’s “Smart on Crime” conference, which ended Wednesday.
Violation of any one of the supervisory conditions—ranging from prohibition against firearms possession to travel restrictions—can result in re-incarceration, said Vincent Schiraldi, who served as Commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation between 2010-2014.
“That’s why 40% of people get arrested on parole,” he told the panel. “Half of the intakes to prison are violations of parole and probation.”
Making things worse, the lack of funding has forced some agencies to assess fees for their services—which further complicates the lives of those under supervised release, the panel was told.
Cheryl Wilkins. Photo courtesy Columbia University
“The payment (request) is dangled in front of your face like a carrot,” said Cheryl Wilkins, a former parolee.
“For instance, say you want to get a driver’s license (which you need) to help you stay out of prison —you would have to pay your supervision fee regularly.”
Bruce Western (left) and Vincent Schiraldi, speaking at John Jay panel on community corrections. Photo by Megan Hadley/TCR
“These (corrections) systems hinder your progress.”
Schiraldi, who recently left a research fellowship post at Harvard to join the Columbia center, agreed that such fees and other red tape “skew incentives” for the formerly incarcerated to qualify for early release.
“If you were a black man facing three to four months of parole as opposed to a year in prison, you would take the year in prison,” he said.
Nevertheless, the number of Americans now under some form of community supervision—about four million—is twice the number of those behind bars, Schiraldi pointed out, adding that this should make reform of the system a priority.
“If we didn’t exist, no one would invent us,” said Schiraldi.
Bruce Western, departing faculty chair of the program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, agreed.
“Incarceration should never be the fault response to violations,” he said. “It should be eliminated for violation of parole.”
Community corrections agencies’ power to arrest people should be used minimally, advised Western.
“If you have power, you are at risk of the abuse of power,” he said.
John Wetzel. Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Department of Correctons
John E. Wetzel, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Corrections, noted “the pretty damn low bar” society has for formerly incarcerated individuals.
Instead, community corrections agencies use spurious concerns about “public safety” as excuses to send more individuals back to prison—especially poor people and people of color, he said.
Megan Hadley is a news intern at The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.
Some of the urban neighborhoods singled out as the most violent places in the country are mislabeled. In most of them homicides are confined to identifiable “hot spots” which require more focused intervention, according to experts at the New York “Smart on Crime” conference Wednesday.
Some of the urban neighborhoods singled out as the most violent places in the country are mislabeled, says a former senior Department of Justice official.
According to Thomas Abt, a former chief of staff for the Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs who is now a Senior Research Fellow with the Center for International Development at Harvard University, a better description of them would be peaceful places plagued by a “few hot spots.”
Redefining them in that way can help shape more effective programs to reduce violent crime—and especially gun violence— in America, Abt told participants Wednesday, at a panel in the second and final day of the “Smart on Crime” conference at John Jay College.
“The most effective strategies are the specific ones,” said Abt, who is also a former deputy secretary for public safety for New York State. “(These) engage the highest risk places and people.”
Experts who advocate focusing on issues like poverty, guns or “cultural values,” are in effect concentrating on “everything besides the problem, which is that violence concentrates in hot spots,” he said.
Other members of the panel, entitled “Reducing Crime and Violence,” agreed.
“We can reduce crime with less law enforcement,” said David Kennedy, a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College and director of the National Network for Safe Communities.
“Most murderers are not serial killers—locking up one does not affect the next one,” said Kennedy, who moderated the panel.
He added that there were now many examples of anti-violence programs that work, where “ordinary people can make a difference.”
Violence in a few at-risk neighborhoods probably accounted for the startling 60% increase in Chicago’s homicide rate between 2015 and 2016, suggested Roseanna Ander, Executive Director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab.
Roseanna Ander. Photo courtesy Harvard Club of NY
“When you have three million people in the city, 60% is a lot of people—it was a historical event (in which) the increase in homicide each month was higher than the homicide rate for the same month the year before.”
Policymakers’ failure to fund local community intervention programs might also have accounted for the increase, she said.
“In the state of Illinois, we had two years of not passing a budget,” Anders said. “The institutions set up in neighborhoods that work with highest risk population were decimated by the budget crisis.”
Devone Boggan, Founding Director of Advance Peace also noted the lack of programs and institutions in place to prevent gun violence in many cities.
Advance Peace works with “a targeted group of individuals at the core of gun hostilities, and bridges the gap between anti-violence programming and a hard-to-reach population at the center of violence in urban areas,” he said.
“What I found out trying to locate the right people is that we didn’t have any place to take them,” said Boggan. “What became real for us was…the options we had weren’t attractive, legitimate, or credible to the population”
Boggan and his team then decided to meet face to face with active firearm offenders and ask, “what can work?”
“What we found is these active firearm offenders are waiting for us to show up with something, they wanted to be engaged every day,” he said. “They wanted to trust social services, but found it difficult to. They needed to be taken to those social services.
“They needed to be walked through that door and stayed with until they said ‘I’m ready to do this on my own.’”
It can be difficult for those in the criminal justice system to trust social service providers, as well as the police officers in their community.
In communities where gun violence is prominent, most community members know who the violent offenders are, and they expect their local policemen to know as well.
“We keep officers in the same area to gain the trust of the community” said Robert Tracy, Police Chief of the Wilmington, Del. Police Department. “We are not about arresting everyone, just the most violent individuals.
“Lowering crime, reducing murders, and arresting less people. Isn’t that the goal?”
Megan Hadley is a news intern with The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.
Some of the most embattled elements of the U.S. justice system, ranging from prisons to prosecutors, are emerging as targets of a rejuvenated bipartisan reform movement in the Trump-era. The broad outlines of that movement emerged this week during a conference at John Jay College in New York.
Some of the most embattled elements of the U.S. justice system, ranging from prisons to prosecutors, are emerging as targets of a rejuvenated reform movement in the Trump era, led by partisans on both sides of the political divide.
The broad outlines of that movement emerged Wednesday during the final day of a “Smart on Crime” conference at John Jay College, where prominent conservatives joined liberals and activists in setting a shared agenda for fixing a system that one said was “impoverishing American society.”
“The issue is bigger than any red-blue divide,” said Mark Holden, General Counsel of Koch Industries, Inc., often vilified by liberals for spending millions on ultra-conservative causes.
“It’s about transforming lives.”
Holden said the transformation had to include preparing incarcerated individuals to re-enter civilian society from the first day they were locked behind bars.
“There needs to be a personalized plan that sets them up for success—we owe them that,” he said, suggesting that programs for counseling, employment and education should become central to correction authorities’ thinking.
Later in the conference, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, the former mayor of Newark NJ, said efforts to reduce prison populations needed to include re-thinking the lengthy punishments meted out to individuals convicted of violent offenses.
Not all “violent” offenders deserved being locked up for decades—especially when they could demonstrate a change in behavior and attitudes during their time inside, he said.
“Does society stop its ideals of redemption and forgiveness when somebody raises a fist?” Booker asked.
Speakers said the urgency of making major system-change had increased under a new administration in Washington that seemed bent on reversing even the initial reforms of the past decade.
Cyrus Vance, Jr.
“At a time when the government is moving off the playing field, and the White House is asking us to solve our own problems, we have to collaborate,” said Manhattan (NY) District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., who argued prosecutors around the country need to focus more attention on preventing people from going to prison, rather than on sending them there.
Is Trump a Boon to Reformers?
Some speakers in fact said the election of Donald Trump has helped revive a reform movement which had taken for granted that the positive trend begun during the Obama era would continue.
“One of the best things that could have happened is Trump as president,” said former Buffalo Bills wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who retired last year after a celebrated 14-year career in the National Football League to devote time to his foundation devoted to helping underprivileged youth, as well as engage in justice reform causes.
“When Obama was in office everybody felt protected, but with Trump a lot of people feel the need to empower themselves,” said Boldin, who recalled his cousin had been killed two years ago during an encounter with police.
The recent controversy over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem was an example of players realizing their power to promote change, he said.
“When I get pulled over by a cop, and he recognizes who I am, he starts asking me for an autograph for his son, but had I not been in the NFL that interaction would be a lot different.”
Vance said changing prosecutors’ approach was a way of eliminating the entrenched bias of the justice system.
When he began working the “lobster shift” from 1 am to 9 am as a young assistant DA in New York in the 1980s, 90 percent of the individuals waiting for their cases to be adjudicated were people of color.
“Thirty-five years later when I returned to the system, it was the same,” he said.
Calling on the 2,800 elected DA’s around the country to “step outside their roles and focus on prevention,” Vance said measures his office had already instituted to slash criminal court dockets by diverting low-level offenders to alternative courts and working with police to reduce “quality of life” arrests had not caused any uptick in crime rates.
“We’ve rethought our decisions about who comes into the justice system,” said Vance, noting that his office had also begun to finance prevention, diversion and counseling programs with over $800 million in funds provided from fines and penalties assessed against banks accused of violating U.S. sanctions.
He was echoed by Mark Gonzalez, a former defense lawyer recently elected DA of Nueces County in south Texas, who said he had persuaded prosecutors on his staff as well as the conservative politicians in his area to consider the “collateral damage” done to individuals sentenced to harsh prison terms, and develop a less-adversarial approach.
“Being tougher on crime is easy,” he said. “Being smart on crime is a challenge.”
Most of Wednesday’s speakers agreed that fundamental reform would allow authorities to focus on individuals who were genuine dangers to public safety and needed to be kept in detention for long periods.
Americans Under Stress
But Booker said the reform movement also needed to take into account both the system’s deep racist roots and the burden it placed on Americans already under economic stress.
Sen. Cory Booker
“Half of American workers make $15 or less an hour,” said Booker. “With one encounter with the criminal justice system—especially if you can’t pay bail—you could lose your job or housing and spiral downwards in the richest country on earth.”
Booker said the problem was aggravated by the fact that those hardest hit by both economic stress and the inequities of the justice system were African Americans and Latinos.
“In a nation that desperately needs all its players on the field, how can you have a system that systematically oppresses people of color?” asked Booker, who last June co-sponsored with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act, intended to walk the country back from the tough-on-crime legislation of the 1990s.
Supporters of the bill—a similar one was introduced in the House last month by Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA)—claim it will reduce the number of incarcerated by 20 percent under a 10-year plan of providing some $20 billion in federal incentive grants.
“We have to educate people to the outrageousness of the system,” said Booker, who also introduced with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), the REDEEM Act, which included a series of federal measures aimed at helping both adults and young people seal criminal records for nonviolent offenses in an effort to improve their chances of rejoining civil society as productive citizens.
These and similar reform measures, such as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, are languishing in Congress because of the opposition of powerful conservatives, including former Sen. Jeff Sessions—now Attorney General.
But Holden of Koch Industries pointed out that the case for making fundamental change was shared by many who felt the justice system was just another example of a “failed big government program.”
“It spends millions of dollars each year with poor results,” observed Holden, citing as an example the War on Drugs, which he said has left illegal drug use at a higher level than it was four decades after the war was declared.
“Drugs won the war on drugs,” said Holden.
What became clear over the course of sessions dealing with the opiate crisis, community corrections technology, and violence reduction, was that many of the most vocal advocates for change shared a poignant awareness that they could have been caught in the justice system themselves.
Holden, who said he grew up in an impoverished neighborhood in Worcester, MA, said many of his former high school classmates had been locked up for drug and other offenses.
“I could easily have ended up the same way, given our circumstances,” he said, noting that how you were treated by courts and police was determined by race and class.
In a “two-tier” justice system, he said, “Rich people always get a better deal.”
Booker said he is the only U.S. senator he knows who goes home to a constituency where most families live below the poverty line median annual income of $14,000.
“When I walk around my neighborhood I can’t tell you how many young people want to talk to be about their convictions.”
Alphonso David, General Counsel for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said the racial inequities of the system were hard to miss.
“When I visit any of the 54 prisons in New York State, I’m still struck by the (awareness) that I am a black man walking into a prison operated by white officers,” he said.
David acknowledged that reforms to correction systems also had to take into account that resistance to closing prisons was led by corrections unions and politicians in areas where they were the only source of good jobs.
He said legislators needed to develop new sources of economic support for those communities.
But there was broad consensus among speakers at this week’s conference that reducing prison numbers, combined with a smarter strategy, to help the incarcerated re-enter society was critical.
“Real reformation starts inside the prison, not outside,” said Daryl Harris, who runs TLC Ministries in inner-city Detroit.
Harris, noting that his neighborhood was nicknamed by local residents “1482-Die” because it registered the majority of Detroit homicides, told the conference that reform had to begin with support for restorative justice that included faith-based programs established inside the prison system itself.
Without attention to developing an inmate’s “good heart,” the problems that “brought you into prison in the first place will lead you right back inside,” he said.
Attendees at the conference included community activists, advocates and justice practitioners around the U.S.
John Jay College President Karol Mason told them that the conference left a clear message; “Do not be discouraged.”
She called on them to return to their communities and continue to advocate “that the system lives up to the ideals this country was founded on.”
She appealed for their help in preserving some of the programs instituted during her years in the Justice Department, such as assistance to the children of incarcerated parents, the Second Chance Pell Grants, and help for male survivors of violence.
“It’s our job,” said Mason, who was a former senior Justice official before taking up her John Jay appointment in August. “To make sure that the tools that we need to be able to make our communities safer still exist.”
Editor’s Note: Portions of the two-day conference are available through theYouTube video on the John Jay channel. For Day One, click here. For Day Two, click here.
Stephen Handelman is executive editor of the Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.
Many states are making it possible for individuals released from prison to find decent jobs, but more work needs to be done to give them a “fair chance” at turning the skills they learned behind bars into employment opportunities, the Smart on Crime forum was told Tuesday.
“When you sentence someone, do you sentence them to 10 years plus one year of unemployment? Or 10 years plus three years of unemployment?”
Nena Walker-Staley, Assistant Deputy Director of Programs and Reentry at the South Carolina Department of Corrections, raised the question during the opening day of the “Smart on Crime” innovations conference held at John Jay College Tuesday.
Despite having done their time, many incarcerated men and women struggle to find a job after they leave prison, Walker-Staley said at a panel entitled “Fair Chance Hiring.”
“When they come out, the barriers they face are the businesses that won’t hire them” she said.
But it’s not because they don’t have the necessary skills to succeed.
“They learn all kinds of skills inside,” Walker-Staley noted. “When I look at these hardwood floors I know our guys scraped hardwood floors. They make furniture. They do welding. They run the asphalt machines that make our highways better.
“We work them inside, but when it’s time to go home, they’re rejected.”
She cited businesses such as Greyston Social Enterprise , which specifically hire formerly incarcerated men and women to end this cycle of rejection.
According to Walker-Staley, they have an open-hiring initiative, stating in effect that, “anyone who comes to our bakery is given the chance to work, no questions asked.”
Workers at Greyston Social Enterprise. Photo by Dion Shay courtesy Greyston
External Affairs Jonathan Halperin, who heads Greyston’s external affairs department, said the company’s goal is to create not just thriving businesses, but thriving communities.
“If we are not dealing with creating jobs for the formerly incarcerated, as businesses we will struggle because the communities will struggle,” he said.
“There is now a more robust dialogue about the role of business innovation and how that can drive social inclusion.”
Even if federal support isn’t forthcoming, states can create employment opportunities for the formerly incarcerated population, the conference was told.
New York’s Fair Chance Act, passed in October of 2015, mandates that businesses owners cannot ask about the criminal record of a job applicant before making an offer.
That allows applicants to be judged by their qualifications and not their previous criminal history. If after a job offer is made, employers want to revoke their decision, they must explain why.
Photo by Megan Hadley/TCR
Some 287 organizations in the state signed a pledge committing them to hiring individuals with criminal backgrounds.
“But there was no accountability in the pledge,” observed Genevieve Martin, Executive Director at Dave’s Killer Bread, an Oregon-based company established to provide employment for the formerly incarcerated.
“There isn’t a body that is able to usher it forward and do more with it”
That leaves the question “what does it means to have an open hiring system, or a fair chance hiring system?” unclear, said Martin.
“Simply, we need a completely new set of recruiting techniques” Martin noted.
The new techniques must challenge your perception, your gut feeling, about hiring someone with a criminal record, she said.
“Once we challenge the perception on an individual level, then we can start to challenge our professional beliefs,” she said.
It’s all about the dignity of work, said Greyston’s Halperin.
“If anyone wants a job and is willing to work,” Halperin said. “He or she should be afforded the opportunity to experience the dignity of work.”
Megan Hadley is a news intern with The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.
The Trump administration should ground its anti-crime strategy on evidence-based research and discard “ideologically-driven” approaches if it wants to keep Americans safe, former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Tuesday. He was joined by Georgia GOP Gov. Nathan Deal at the start of a two-day forum at John Jay College in New York.
Washington’s new leaders should discard “ideologically-driven” approaches to crime if they want to keep Americans safe, former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Tuesday.
Speaking at the launch of a two-day “Smart on Crime” forum at John Jay College in New York, Holder said the success of innovative strategies in areas like policing and corrections during his tenure demonstrated the value of justice system reforms based on research and scientific evidence.
“Ideologically-driven language is not in the best interest of the American people, or in trying to get control of the problems that (current policymakers) say they want to deal with,” he said.
Policy changes instituted so far by the Department of Justice (DOJ) under Attorney General Jeff Sessions are “driven by ideology, policies, and views of policy that are inconsistent with evidence,” and threaten to revive the “discredited” tough anti-crime strategies that prevailed in former decades, said Holder.
Citing Sessions’ recent guidelines to prosecutors to pursue mandatory-minimum sentences even for low-level drug offenses, he observed, “This cookie-cutter approach seems to be going back to a discredited (period) that led to mass incarceration and is not fiscally sustainable.”
The John Jay forum brought together academics, policymakers, practitioners, advocates, and formerly incarcerated individuals to discuss grassroots efforts around the country developed as part of the “Smart on Crime” initiative introduced by the DOJ under Holder in 2013.
Participants heard largely upbeat accounts of the progress of projects underway in courts, police departments and correctional systems, along with calls for changing the “culture” of U.S. criminal justice to reflect the growing bipartisan rejection of the harsh anti-crime measures of the 1980s and 1990s.
Georgia Republican Gov. Nathan Deal told the conference that the success of “accountability courts” that provide counseling or alternatives to long-term incarceration for nonviolent offenders, such as drug courts, family courts and mental health courts in cutting the state’s high recidivism rates helped persuade even conservative state legislators to support justice reform.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal speaks at the ‘Smart on Crime’ forum. Photo via YouTube
Soon after he took office in 2011, Deal said he was told that Georgia, with the 10th largest population in the U.S., had the country’s fourth largest prison population—and it was growing.
“They told me I would need to be prepared to build two new adult prisons—at a cost of $254 million,” he recalled.
The state was already spending $19,000 per prison bed annually, pushing the state Department of Corrections budget to $1.2 billion a year. Most of those behind bars were jailed for non-violent offenses, and many suffered from substance abuse issues.
Spending that amount of money to lock up people for offenses not considered violent would strike most people as wrong, he said.
“Some people said to me that prison reform or criminal justice reform don’t sound like Republican agenda items,” said Deal. “I said it doesn’t matter. It’s costing our state money, and more importantly the lives of many of our citizens.”
‘A Redemption Story’
Deal said his initial proposals to expand the state’s accountability courts passed unanimously in both houses of the Georgia legislature, and bipartisan support for additional changes has continued since. He plans to usher in a new package of criminal justice reforms in 2018.
“Accountability courts are the greatest thing we have seen—people who graduate from these courts are proud of it, not embarrassed by it. It’s religious in nature—a redemption story,” the governor said.
He went on to list other successful legislative measures aimed at changing policies towards the formerly incarcerated, such as “banning the box” which asks prospective job-seekers for state jobs if they had ever been imprisoned, and developing charter schools to help inmates receive high school diplomas.
The need to end job and housing discrimination affecting former inmates was a recurring theme addressed by many of the other speakers, who said it was a crucial step not only in preventing recidivism but in rebuilding families and communities which have been shattered by high incarceration rates.
“We should welcome (the formerly incarcerated) back to our American family so they can contribute to our communities and help build the tax base,” said Daryl Atkinson, a former inmate who was named the first “Second Chance Fellow” at the Department of Justice.
Atkinson recalled that despite receiving a high school diploma while in prison, he was denied federal student aid when he applied to enter college after being released, and was denied admission to five law schools. He finally received a B.A. in political science from Benedict College in Columbia, SC, and a J.D. from the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis., MN.
The “culture of redemption” changed his life, he told the forum.
“Imagine if we took that to scale,” he said.
“There are 2.2 million people in prisons and jails today, maybe six or seven million people under supervision and another 75 million who have prison records.”
But the forum’s upbeat approach was shadowed by the barely hidden concern that President Donald Trump’s administration was bent on reversing many of the policies ushered in during the Obama era.
“It doesn’t feel good,” admitted Holder. “We worked hard to put into place measures that were evidence-based.”
He noted that the continued surge in homicide and violent crime rates in cities like Chicago was a cause for concern, but he said Washington only seemed interested in using the problem as an excuse for political grandstanding
He called on his successor to provide more federal funds to Chicago rather than just angry rhetoric.
“Instead of pointing to (these problems) as an example of all things bad in America, do something,” he said to applause. “That’s your damn job.”
The Smart on Crime strategy, launched by the DOJ over three years ago, encouraged prosecutors, judges and police around the country to focus on developing a smarter use of their resources to ensure that the impact of the justice system was “fair” and unbiased.
It emphasized programs to develop alternatives to incarceration for non-violent crimes; boost prevention and reentry programs; and strengthen protections for “vulnerable populations,” according to a fact sheet released at the time.
The John Jay forum is co-sponsored by the Center for American Progress and supported by several foundations, including the Coalition for Public Safety; FWD.us; Gideon’s Promise; JustLeadershipUSA; Koch Industries; the Laura and John Arnold Foundation; the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; and Right on Crime.
The conference continues Wednesday.
TCR news intern Megan Hadley also contributed to this report. Readers’ comments are welcome.