Staff of the Harlem Parole Reentry Court discuss how they help ex-offenders make the transition from incarceration to the community.
This is a transcript:
ROBERT V. WOLF: Hi. This is Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation, and welcome to another episode of New Thinking, a podcast produced by the Center for Court Innovation to highlight practitioners, researchers, and others who are experimenting with new approaches to justice.
Today I'm in the Harlem Community Justice Center with some people who make the Harlem Reentry Court a reality. The reentry court, which was launched in 2001, is one of many experiments around the United States seeking to address the fact that within three years of their release from state or federal prison, about half of ex-offenders return for either a new crime or parole violation.
With me today are Administrative Law Judge Grace Bernstein of the Division of Parole, Senior Parole Officer Alfonso Camacho, Reentry Coordinator Nigel Jackson, and Deputy Project Director of the Harlem Community Justice Center John MeGaw. Welcome everybody.
WOLF: So let me start off with a straightforward question. What is the Harlem Parole Reentry Court?
JOHN MEGAW: Rob, we opened up in 2001 and it was an effort by the Division of Parole, which sort of acknowledged the difficulty of men and women who had gotten out of prison staying out of prison. Nigel and Al Camacho's staff go into prison prior to the release of the inmate to get a lot of information. Then when they come out on the day that they're released, they appear here and they appear before Judge Bernstein.
And the idea is that they will—they need to be more accountable, and we help them get to jobs, we help them get into treatment programs, and every other week review how things are going.
We work with them for six months, but if they successfully make it through their first six months after release, then we have a big graduation ceremony and celebrate their success.
WOLF: Generally, how long have they been in prison? Is there a wide range?
ALFONSO CAMACHO: Our parolees consist of violent and non-violent offenders that can vary in time of incarceration from a year to five to 10. One individual in particular just spent a significant amount of time in jail for 20 years; and he's doing well by the way.
WOLF: So I would think that someone who's been in jail that long has a tremendous number of needs, you know, housing, job, I mean just getting reoriented into the community. And John referred to the kinds of services, but, I mean, how do you really get in there and support someone like that?
CAMACHO: Well, unlike the traditional services where mostly everything is done by referral, here at the Harlem Reentry all the agencies involved are anticipating this person's arrival with more or less a coherent plan in store for them with the goal hopefully that this individual, the needs are already known by each inter-dependent agency and therefore to lead to the same basically common result of hopefully providing services this individual may need.
GRACE BERNSTEIN: Last year we've had a number of individuals who had served a significant amount of time, 20 years I think, some even more.
When they come out of prison, they're very motivated, but they come out of prison sometimes with no place to go. We provide them immediate housing.
One guy said he didn’t know anything about a Metrocard when he got out. And he actually went back to school. And these are men in their fifties, these are not young people, some are in their forties.
And you know, we give them what they need, and there's a very supportive environment here. But that, you know, a supportive environment and everything isn't what does it. What does it is the immediacy of the services; that's what does it, and parole officers and senior parole officers who really want this to succeed and work very, very hard with the individuals because it's not always “Oh, he comes in after six months. It's perfect.”
WOLF: And I imagine that there are some people who have been in prison a long time. They've been involved with the justice system, and then they're brought to a courthouse after their release. Do some people, I don't know, react negatively or have some issues around that, being brought before a judge again when they thought they were done with judges.
NIGEL JACKSON: I would say yes. They definitely have a problem with seeing a judge. Ninety nine percent of the people, you know, they have a big problem coming to see a judge as well as a parole officer. Maybe I'd give them a 20-minute talk to everyone that we're interviewing before individual interviews. There's a lot of apprehension. So at one point I asked, "Yo, what's the problem?" And he said, "Every time I see a judge, I go to prison." So at that point, I changed my whole spiel and I let them know how Judge Bernstein is. She's their biggest ally and they have to meet here before they judge what type of person she is and what her role is. And I let them know the only person they can violate you first is yourself and your parole officer. And Judge Bernstein is there to help you. And if you need a kick in the butt, she's going to kick you in the butt.
WOLF: So Judge Bernstein, I understand that you spend a good part of your week actually at Rikers—that's not part of the reentry court—where you are looking at parole violators perhaps.
BERNSTEIN: I do parole violators. And if somebody violates from here, then they know if that has to happen, then we tell them this is the whole purpose, for to not send you back to jail. That's my opening statement: "We're here not to send you back to jail," that they know they're going to come before me. And they know when I tell them it's not a Chinese menu where you can choose some of your conditions like part of A and not B, that you have to do everything; if there's a problem, come in and talk to us. We try very hard to work with them as long as they're working with us.
There was one incident yesterday, if I can have a minute, which I think really says a lot about the program. I was in the waiting room where people stand and I'll talk to them and they'll tell me their problems; they're doing well enough; whatever. But this particular individual said his son graduated high school and is in and will be going back to where he lives and to college. And he wanted to bring his son here to meet everybody. And he wasn't sure—could he come in next week even though it's not his regular day to meet his parole officer and bring his son? You know, every once in a while there's something that says everything. I think that says everything.
WOLF: Well, let me ask you. Your role is very different when you're here. Do you feel different as a judge? You're doing something different; your function is different.
BERNSTEIN: Yes. I feel sometimes that it's at the finish line and I’m coaching, "You can do this just a little bit more; you can do this," and sometimes to say to them you care, sometimes you make them feel that they can do something, that they can have confidence in themselves when they fall to move forward again. I feel that my purpose here really is to make sure that they do not violate and go back to jail. This is why I'm here; this is why I want to be here.
MEGAW: The irony to your earlier point about their reluctance, resistance to see a judge when they first hear about it from Nigel and the parole staff in Queensboro before they're released, the irony is that when they complete their six months, very few want to return to regular parole supervision. They all want to stay in this program.
Unfortunately, we can't continue because there are new parolees that need to come in. But it's a complete turnaround in that time because of the attention that they get here.
WOLF: Do you find it a challenge sometimes to find them housing or jobs because people are reluctant to house ex-offenders or employ ex-offenders?
CAMACHO: We do have agencies that can accommodate at least this particular group of individuals because, again, we have established relationships with other agencies like Palladia that can take our undomiciled offenders. So we do have things in place for that.
MEGAW: It's temporary housing. There’s no question that housing is tight especially for someone who is working a low-level job and doesn’t have the money to be able to afford an apartment in Manhattan.
Jobs, actually, the other part, you know, jobs is one of the other stumbling blocks. We have a – the Division of Parole works with and we work with an agency called the Center for Employment Opportunities. So we set up—and again, it's the immediacy of the services—the parolees begin transitional work right away. And so, they are going each day, getting into a routine of getting up in the morning, getting to a job, working, and they get a paycheck at the end of every day. So they have a little money in their pocket to begin to support themselves and to provide for their families, something they may not have done before for many years. We also work with agencies in this area by encouraging them to hire ex-offenders.
WOLF: And so, have you observed certain characteristics that the most successful participants have? I mean what makes for a successful participant in the reentry court?
BERNSTEIN: I think what it is, is real determination not to go back to jail. “I'm not going back to jail and I'm going to do whatever is necessary.” And persistence: “I'm not getting discouraged.” And the problem is the drugs though; that's a whole separate issue. I’ll let you address that.
CAMACHO: There’s a renewed sense of responsibility for their actions. I mean this is a short-term program for six months. But to just instill certain behaviors that can carry on to their next PO because when they leave here, they do get transferred to a regular field PO. But unlike that field PO getting a fresh individual out of jail with all these needs, these individuals have probably achieved or reached most of their needs. So it becomes actually a pretty decent transition for them to continue their life with parole as part of it, remain working, stable residency and, of course, absence new drugs. Those three things, are basically the most common factors to recidivism that I've seen in my years as a P.O.
BERNSTEIN: Some parolees react very positively when they have extra responsibilities thrown on them. They're all of a sudden responsible for a child that they didn't think they'd be responsible for and they know they have to get themselves together; when somebody in their family is ill and they know they have to be there for that person.
CAMACHO: Just finding that a motivating factor.
BERNSTEIN: Yeah. Something that says “I'm going to do it.”
CAMACHO: It's no longer "do it for parole or you get locked up." That premise is out the window.
WOLF: Nationally, I understand there's a trend towards more attention on reentry. That's a focus. What's your sense of that?
MEGAW: Fifteen year ago the term "reentry" was not really in the vocabulary of criminal justice experts and policy folks. The fact is that about 600,000 men and women are released from state and federal prisons each year. And there's a recognition that about half of them—there’s the problem—about half of them end up in jail or prison within three years.
And so, in 2001, I think 2001 was really the year in which, not just in New York State, but other states as well, where they started to look at the rate of recidivism and the approach to dealing with that problem.
And so, New York State and this court in particular was – I actually thought we were the first in the United States. It turns out I think we're the second or the third reentry court that started. But 2001 is when the other courts started as well. Now I just learned, actually a couple of weeks ago at a conference in St. Louis, there's about 50 reentry courts around the country.
WOLF: What kind of results have you seen? Have you been able to track participants and see if the lessons that they've learned here have stuck?
MEGAW: Here, since actually 2006, we're proud to report that over 85 percent of the men and women we worked with have been successful. So that means that they haven't violated or had new arrests.
CAMACHO: And I can even add more recently to that. Our graduating class here—we're going to have a graduation soon—from the beginning of the year, January, quite frankly I totaled I think about three year arrests from the whole population of over 70 parolees, give or take. That's amazing.
WOLF: That's great.
CAMACHO: What I'd like to see is really agency, cooperation, and coordination combined with individual determination resulting in positive numbers that you see here.
WOLF: Well, I wonder if any of you have any final comments you'd like to share with others who might be thinking about ways to ease the transition from prison to the community.
JACKSON: Like everyone says, the coordination with different agencies that provide the services, the service providers. You have to have some sort of collaboration. And when we come together at our monthly meetings, this also makes the person be responsible because they know that we're talking, they know they can't go and jive us: “Oh I went to the program.” No, we get a report every week.
So these are the things that I –the programs are very important as well as our collaborations and the responsibility that the parolee has, that he knows that we are speaking to each other every week or everyday.
CAMACHO: Communities, localities, more or less, do have to take a responsibility of the population that's coming in from jail to their immediate districts or residences, whatever. And with that in mind, their parole officers can more or less help these people reach a successful completion of their sentence by having immediacy, what we have here, but is so lacking in the general parole population as a whole.
WOLF: Right. Right.
JACKSON: The word I was looking for is “accountability” that the parolee has when he knows that we're all in communication with each other. They can't lie. If we have a problem with someone, and the world is so small …
CAMACHO: For this one little community, this one little area and this one project going on here, I really think it does more or less give a model to what should be the new 21st century view of criminal intervention and changes in social behavior.
BERNSTEIN: About the program, one of the big things is the continued innovation in the program. The program started originally with a very small amount of people in it, very small case loads, all non-violent. We now have people who are violent. And for the first time, we're now taking women.
So there is constant innovations within the program itself, and the one thing that I think needs to be worked on is jobs, jobs, jobs, and the community being open to hiring people.
WOLF: Thank you, all, so much for taking the time to tell me about your work here at the Harlem Parole Reentry Court.
I've been talking with the Administrative Law Judge Grace Bernstein from the Division of Parole, and Senior Parole Officer Alfonso Camacho, and the reentry coordinator, Nigel Jackson; and the deputy project director of the Harlem Community Justice Center, John MeGaw. Thanks so much to all of you.
And to learn more about the Harlem Parole Reentry Court, you can visit the Center for Court Innovation's website at www.courtinnovation.org. At the bottom of the home page you'll see a tab labeled "reentry" and you can subscribe to the New Thinking podcast through iTunes or you can visit us on the podcast page at www.courtinnovation.org. I'm Rob Wolf, director for communications at the Center for Court Innovation. Thanks for listening.