"You Don't Have to Move, to Live in a Better Neighborhood!"
Ex-offender reentry is being re-invented from that which has existed over the last several decades as a consequence of:
- the unprecedented attention it has received at all levels of government and within the media
- the significant input, resources and leadership being contributed from non-traditional sources (i.e. influence from diverse stakeholder groups)
Although criminal justice systems across the country have been largely successful in reducing the crime rate in communities all over the United States, it has come primarily through increased incarcerations at a very significant social and financial cost. The psychosocial costs of these incarcerations, particularly within poorer inner city communities of color, have innumerable and widespread ramifications that may not be completely understood or even fully realized for generations to come. The financial cost to government (the taxpayers) is so great as a result of the record number and length of incarcerations being imposed that the operating budgets to incarcerate have now risen to be the first or second largest line items within most state, county and local governments - certainly for the vast majority of the larger jurisdictions across America. It is proving to be increasingly difficult for the criminal justice system in general and the penal system in particular to be fully responsible and accountable for both the incarceration (meant to be punitive and protective) and the rehabilitation (meant to be restorative and transformational) of individuals who pose a threat to the safety and security of our society.
Could there be a basic flaw in the current reentry paradigm, its attendant goals, its intended outcomes and the share of responsibility among its major stakeholders?
There is a new paradigm in ex-offender reentry that suggests a change in the goals, a redefinition of the outcomes and a shift in responsibility - all of which reflect a greater focus on the long-term interest of the community. It only makes sense that the communities from which these individuals come and will return, should be in a position to set the appropriate standards, build the type of relationships, provide the community specific resources and establish the most suitable terms by which their loved ones will be restored as valuable human beings, re-unified as important members of their families and re-integrated as productive, law-abiding citizens within their communities. Therefore, we must go beyond just the training and education of the best practices and the networking and sharing of resources. Although very important to the success of any reentry initiative, best practices alone cannot solve the myriad of complicated issues inextricably tied to the success of ex-offender reentry. After all, reentry involves changing people's attitudes and behaviors - both inside and outside the prison walls. This monumental talk requires more than just concepts and theories, programs and tools and resources and service; it requires the building of new, healthy, long-term relationships.
We must RAISE THE BAR!
The ultimate goal of reentry must change from one that only seeks to reduce the overall incidence of crime to one that maximizes the rebuilding of our communities and actually enhances the community's perception of safety and security.
This can only be done if we change our expectations of the individuals being released from the prison and jail cells across the country. We get what we expect. If we expect more, we will get more. That is, if we continue to prepare individuals for release by only focusing on ways to keep them out of prison, it may happen - but it may not as national statistics have clearly demonstrated. If, on the other hand, we prepared individuals leaving prison for leadership positions in the community - that too may happen. But in the process, you would have instilled a greater sense of self worth and a sense of purpose that the inmate may never have had before. Either way, you would have raised a much more positive expectation of the inmate's return for the inmate, the family and the community.
We must RAISE THE BAR!
Correspondingly, the optimal outcomes must change to reflect more of a community focus and to provide for a more immediate indication of the success of a person's reentry. Reduced recidivism has been the most widely accepted indicator of successful reentry for many years. Conceptually, however, its measurement, sphere of control and direct impact are mostly under the auspices of the criminal justice system. In fact, it could be argued that to dramatically reduce recidivism may actually further threaten the quality of life within the communities affected. Reducing recidivism simply reflects a lower number of individuals returning to prison after being released. It says nothing of the quality of life those persons may be experiencing while staying out. Even though certain criminal justice strategies may be successful in keeping these individuals out of prison, it may have only shifted the social, medical, housing, employment and mental health challenge to an already overburdened service system. Is that in the best interest of the community? A more reasonable indicator of successful reentry would be the number of hours and the number of individuals who leave prison and voluntarily become engaged in neighborhood development, community building and other socially constructive activities. This affords the community an opportunity to:
- Measure an inmate's post-release progress almost immediately upon release instead of waiting an inordinate period of time while waiting for negative incidents to happen.
- Indicate a positive change in an individual's thinking and behavior.
- Directly benefit that community.
We must RAISE THE BAR!
The must fundamental change that must occur to realize the full benefit of this new paradigm is a shift in the overall responsibility for ex-offender reentry. This would empower the affected communities to gather its resources and build the relationships with the inmates, and between the service providers, to meet the needs of the affected families and the community. If the community initiated contact with the inmate 15 - 18 months before release, implemented best practice reentry programming at least 12 months prior to release, facilitated the inmate's transition from prison back to the community and continued to follow the individual for at least three years after release, this would better ensure that inmates who have decided to turn their lives around had the best opportunity to do so. When a person leaving prison or jail succeeds, the community succeeds.
We must RAISE THE BAR!
Ex-offender reentry is neither about ex-offenders nor the criminal justice system. Ex-offender reentry is about community. Therefore, if community is not in the driver's seat or at least a front seat navigator for reentry, how can we ensure the adequacy, appropriateness and availability of the human, social, political and financial resources so critical to the success of this effort? PowerNet is in the business of saving lives, and we take our work very seriously.
WE MUST RAISE THE BAR IF WE WANT A WIN for the criminal justice system, a WIN for the inmates and their families, and a WIN for the community.