What are the challenges facing the hundreds of thousands of people discharged from U.S. prison every year? What are the challenges facing their home communities, which are often poor and under-served? And how did we get here, with millions of Americans--a disproportionate share of whom are African-American--behind bars? New York University Law Professor Anthony C. Thompson tackles these questions in a presentation based on his new book, Releasing Prisoners, Redeeming Communities: Reentry, Race, and Politics.
The following is a transcript of the podcast.
ROBERT V. WOLF: At the Center for Court Innovation, we occasionally invite speakers to address our staff. In December, we invited Anthony C. Thompson, who is a professor of clinical law at New York University School of Law, to talk about his new book, Releasing Prisoners, Redeeming Communities: Reentry, Race, and Politics, published by NYU Press. What follows is an abbreviated version of Professor Thompson's presentation. The first voice you hear is that of Greg Berman, our director, introducing Professor Thompson.
GREG BERMAN: So Tony is a professor at NYU Law School. He's also the kind of guy who writes, you know, New York Times op-eds and appears on Charlie Rose, and has his tentacles in, working with a lot of different criminal justice agencies including, I should say, the Center for Court Innovation. I don't always totally agree with the conclusions that Tony reaches, but I feel like our work has gotten stronger through being engaged with him. And in all the things that he does, I think he comes up from the same perspective that we do, which is a desire to kind of speak the truth about the complicated and messy world of criminal justice. And so I asked him today to come and talk about his book, which is still brand new, and which everybody should run out and by: Releasing Prisoners, Redeeming Communities. Tony Thompson.
ANTHONY THOMPSON: I want to thank Greg for asking me to come and talk to you today. It's a little daunting, knowing what this great organization does, but what I want to do today is to talk a little bit about some of the stories in my book, and I want to talk about how I think we got to this point and perhaps some of the trajectories that we're gonna engage in.
So, you know, we can't open a newspaper today, turn on the local news, without hearing the latest story about some horrible crime that's occurred and the perpetrator of the crime is an ex-offender. And the next thing we usually hear is the governor is about to abolish parole and prison program. The stories have become so commonplace that we tune them out. But there are other stories that we never hear—they don't grab the headlines. They are stories like Mark La Cloche's story. Someone who went to prison for robbery, spent 1,200 hours preparing to be a barber only to find out that when he was released he couldn't get a barber's apprentice license because of his felony conviction.
We ask ourselves, ‘Why can't these ex-offenders learn their lessons and come back to society and work?’ We ask, ‘Why can't the families of ex-offenders be more supportive when they come out?’ But we don't hear the stories of people who can't return to public housing, and come out of custody homes because of draconian regulations that prevent them from being in public housing. So we ask, ‘Why aren't women more connected when they come out with their children?’ but they don't realize that women's prisons in particular are located far away from families, far away from public transportation. And it makes it difficult because we don't even provide the capacity for them to reconnect to their communities. We ask, ‘Why don't communities do more to reintegrate people when they come back?’ not realizing for the most part, when formerly incarcerated return to their communities, they're returning to communities without Rotary Clubs, or Elks Lodges.
Communities are by and large low-income communities that are already just stretched to the brink. They are without treatment beds, jobs, or mentors. If we remove ourselves for a moment from the individual stories, the numbers tell part of the story. We spend about $31 billion to operate the nation's prisons. When we add to that jail, probation, and parole, the figure rises to about $50 billion a year. The problem is that despite the huge expenditures that I'm talking about, we're not getting a good bang for the buck. In part, this is because we have too many people in prison.
Let's talk for a bit about how we got here. In the 1980s and 90s, the federal government waged a war on drugs. It was during that period that we witnessed an unprecedented increase in the number of people incarcerated across the country. By 2001, about two million men and women resided in prisons and jails. This dramatic rise and increase had a particular devastating impact on the African-American community. Whereas African-Americans made up, at the time, about 13 percent of the population, they made close to 47 percent of the prison population and that had a dramatic impact, obviously, for people being released into communities, some of which you guys do business with every day. When the war on drugs was at its rhetorical height, conservative politicians considered it—pointed the market on the tough-on-crime policies. Liberal and even mainstream democrats did not have adequate responses to questions. Politicians who routinely ask for impact studies for environmental legislation never ask for impact studies for criminal law legislation. Instead we saw a wave of federal and state legislation emerge that was aimed at showing who could conceive of the most draconian politics. My favorite example is public benefits, which disproportionately affected women, which I'll talk about later. But if you committed a drug crime, you were banned from public benefits. But if you committed rape, robbery, or murder, it didn't touch your public benefits at all.
It gives some sort of insight into what was going on in Congress at this—during this time. Few, if any, elected officials raised a question about this because they didn't want to be labeled with the political scarlet letter of "soft on crime." Despite overwhelming statistics linking incarceration with lack of education, policy makers spent all of two minutes in the debate to remove Pell grants, which were the major educational vehicle for people who receive education in prison. This constant refrain of Willie Horton not only incited racial fears, but helped to transform the role of parole from one designed to help people, to one primarily focused on surveillance.
One of the chief effects of this change was that we saw huge numbers of people being incarcerated for technical violations. And when I say technical violations, I’m being very specific. I mean missing meetings and dirty drug tests. And we've learned in recent years that relapse is a part of recovery. That hasn't factored in yet to these technical violations and returns to prison. They're both astronomically expensive and completely inappropriate for treating people with drug dependency.
So I've talked a lot about the problems and I talked for a minute about what are the fundamental factors to keep people from reoffending? What have we learned in the last decade and a half? One: family—having ties that matter. Two: housing—having a sense of stability. Three: employment—having a stake in society and meaning in your life. And four: having a voice in society, having the ability to be heard. The book goes into detail about each of these factors and there are some stories I talk about and today I want to focus just on a few. I'm gonna start with the family.
Women continue to be the highest growing, or fastest growing segment in the U.S. prison population. Who are these women? The profile of the average woman in custody is a woman of color in her early 30’s. She has more than one child under the age of 18, she's in custody on a non-violent drug or property offense, and she was unemployed or underemployed at the time she was incarcerated. A high percentage of women in custody have been victims of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. Most have not sought or ever received treatment. Even a quick examination of the hurdles women typically encounter in prison or upon release reveals the limitation of a system built primarily for men. The average program for services available to women in this dual prison system are inferior in quality and number to those programs available to men. Prison programming tends not to help women deal with the cluster of legal and emotional problems related to custody and having small children, for example.
Housing is another aspect of this. Realty has gone unnoticed in the housing area by and large because the housing stock in most urban centers is very low. When you look at all the barriers to housing, one of the ones I point out and deal a lot with is the one strike legislation. In 1996, in the State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton wooed all of us. He said that in public housing, the residents who commit crime should be subject to one strike legislation. The speech was phenomenal. It had all the rhetorical flare that the media craves. It had—for all its simplicity, the legislation dealt serious blows to family structures and communities. Most citizens assumed that those who committed violent offenses while in public housing would be evicted. That's what we thought. What we got was one strike legislation that barred any individual with a criminal record from living in any public housing. What that meant was, if you were in New York City, for example, a 15-, 16-year-old kid charged in adult court as an adult, with that conviction, you couldn't live with your family. So what’s the practical effect of all of this? Well what we know is that high numbers of people in places like New York City, for example, are coming out of custody either directly into homeless shelters or worse yet, into homelessness. This further complicates an individual's reentry back into his or her community. Not to mention those instances where families do take the risk that allows someone back into the family in public housing and that creates an incredible tension during the reentry process that further complicates reentry.
I also want to discuss for a moment, employment. Um, people come out of custody and want to work. They want the American dream. I am constantly confounded by elected officials and the cable network news pundits who say—people who are incarcerated don't want jobs. They want a career, they want retirement, they want the same things you and I have. They want those opportunities. Perhaps the cruelest hoax we play on people who are incarcerated is to tell them, when you leave the prison walls, you've paid your debt to society. There's no more aspect of a criminal history that is more devastating than employment.
So with all this you may ask—is there any good news in this story? And my answer to you is an unequivocal "maybe." In terms of national policy, the president signed into legislation the second chance act. And it qualified many of the successful programs that you've seen in the country. I actually talk about some of them in the book. For example, the bill calls for the Bureau of Prisons to establish comprehensive prisoner reentry training programs. They assist in returning home and obtaining work and identification—some of the things that we found, nationally, have a positive correlation to people's reintegration into their communities. There's also language that urges the adoption of better practices to coordinate services and communication between children and incarcerated parents. There's a discussion in the bill, also, about how to better use community corrections. With the tightening of state budgets around the country, we're also seeing some closer examinations of state corrections policies. As I said earlier, those are the true budget busters. We have learned, for example, that there's a relatively small number of people that we need to expend large resources to monitor and focus on in society. There's also a large percent of incarcerated individuals that would benefit dramatically from a concentrated effort to provide them substance abuse treatment, education or vocational training, housing, and employment. Furthermore, I think if we bridge pre-release and release services, we will increase the likelihood of their success on reentry.
So why did I sound less than optimistic? If you look at the results of a Princeton sociologist, Devah Pager, a good friend of mine, Devah's study looks at how potential employees were reluctant to hire ex-offenders. But the real difficulty with Devah's study is we found that white employers were more likely to hire a white man with a record than an African-American man without a record. And that's where second chance will run headlong into issues of race and poverty in the United States. Our inability, as a nation to deal directly with issues of race addressed with, or coupled with, our readiness to demonize those in custody, as well as a lack of affordable housing and entry-level jobs all conspire to further exacerbate some of the problems that I’ve described in my book.
So there are some reasons to be a little more optimistic. We know, for example, of the statistical relationship between housing, employment, family support, and the reentry process and we've begun to make some moves there. Collaboration between government in the non-profit sector has also demonstrated some successes. Once released from custody, most formerly incarcerated individuals return to communities that are economically strained, socially isolated, and don't have the vitally necessary services. So bolstering important services—housing, jobs, public health services are all part of the reentry solution.
In addition, in some rural and many urban locations, the faith-based community is part of the answer. We have to establish a process and procedure for adequately monitoring and evaluating the delivery of faith-based services. The size of your church or the political clout of the pastor can't be the primary determining factor as to who gets money to do reentry. However, with the support of faith-based services and churches of all denominations, we see that there's been some success in their integration in the reentry process.
Finally, we need to get more out of our government agencies. The Second Chance Act, and signing it, and the publicity around it has really begun to suggest that government hears a calling for change. But bringing the Departments of Labor and Education into the courtroom, making sure that we begin to think about people's reentry prior to release is critical. The public should know that there will be setbacks. As stories of parolees still becoming in crime lead the morning news and evening news, we cannot and should not entertain conversations about eliminating parole and eliminating the program. We have to be more strategic about the program and I think that having organizations like this that continue to grow, and think about issue like reentry, make me optimistic about what the future holds.
ROB WOLF: You've been listening to Anthony C. Thompson, a professor of Clinical Law at New York University Law School, who spoke to staff at the Center for Court Innovation in December 2009. For more information about the Center for Court Innovation visit our website at www.courtinnovation.org. I'm Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. Thank you for listening.