In addition to discussing our programs and bragging about our graduates, I plan to make two points:
Reentry is a difficult process. The formula we often use is “housing + employment = successful reentry.” For this reason, we generally find that the most successful pre-release strategies are mediation with family members (to guarantee housing upon release), and education (to guarantee employment.) BUT…
Reentry is needlessly complicated by the court supervision processes of parole (and sometimes probation.)
When we say that the three year recidivism rate is 68% (which is what you’ll find when you look at Bureau of Justice Statistics) we’re saying that 68% of formerly incarcerated folks are rearrested for something–but not necessarily for a crime, and certainly not for a crime that has a victim. More often then not, recidivism is the result of technical parole violations. These are activities that are not themselves illegal, but violate the terms of a person’s parole and lead to a short (or sometimes long) stint of re-incarceration.
Parole can thus interfere with the building blocks of reentry: housing and employment. What I’ve observed is that the restrictions of parole around housing can leave DC residents housing-insecure or homeless–while the meddlesome nature of drug tests and CSO visits can lead many employed returning citizens to lose their jobs because they must continually leave work to race across the city for a timed urine sample, or stay home unexpectedly for a home inspection.
Parole officers are not always caring and concerned mentors, either. It’s rare–I’m sure!–but sometimes they can be rude and disrespectful, not only to the person on parole but to their employers and family members as well. All of this puts unneeded stress on frayed bonds that returning citizens need to take advantage of their second chance. It is something that potential employers have to factor in to their decision to hire returning citizens.
Some supervision agencies are working to provide alternative hours for employed returning citizens, and to punish disrespectful attitudes from officers. However, the ongoing stigma and skepticism directed at returning citizens means that enforcing these provisions remains difficult.
Ideally, we’d treat supervision in much the same way that we treat other factors that hamper full commitment to an employer: parents face similar pressures from school cancellations and illnesses, for instance, but to at least some extent we socially value these conflicts and thus work to manage the difficulties parents face–again, not adequately but to some extent. We can and should do the same for returning citizens who face difficulties from supervision and monitoring. But we do not accommodate them!
This failure to accommodate returning citizens is exacerbated when an individual applicant or employee has multiple intersecting strains: a family to care for, a parole officer to negotiate with, a chance of being re-incarcerated. Employers struggle to manage these risks, and so they resist hiring returning citizens–even when they are missing out on talented workers.
It may well be that court supervision serves important public safety goals. However, it is long past time for supervision itself to be assessed for its efficacy and evaluated according to its benefits and its economic (and human!) costs. We already know that supervision is creating serious obstacles to measuring the efficacy of every other reentry program, since it undermines the efficacy of measures of recidivism by aggregating technical parole violations with reoffenses. If the true measure of “corrections” is “desistance” then we will struggle to measure that against the backdrop of drug and alcohol screenings, GPS monitoring, and association violations.
It’s worth repeating this fact: the US incarcerates 2.3 million people, ten times the global average. What’s more, almost 70 million of our fellow citizens have a criminal record. It’s almost certainly not a good idea to discriminate against returning citizens, because it’s a signal that no other country provides, meaning most returning citizens would be employed if only they had had the good luck to be born outside of the US.
Today I am testifying on behalf of the Second Look Amendment Act of 2019, sometimes dubbed IRAA 3.0. The initial IRAA, the Incarceration Amendment Act, was designed to provide post-sentencing review to those who committed crimes as juveniles and were given life or near-life sentences. IRAA 2.0 extended eligibility and clarified some issues in the original bill, and the current incarnation is designed to provide that same post-sentencing review to those convicted of crimes from 18-25 years old.
I represent the Georgetown Pivot Program—a reentry program based at Georgetown University that began last year. I am also a DC resident, residing in Ward 4, and I support the Second Look Amendment Act.
No discussion of DC sentencing
review can proceed without a few basic facts:
The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. We have less than 5% of the world’s population and more than 20% of the world’s prisoners.
Most of the march towards mass incarceration is driven by state-level policies rather than federal law. 83% of prisoners are incarcerated in state prisons and local jails.
DC has the highest incarceration rate of any state or territory in the US: yes, we have a higher incarceration rate than Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, or Georgia. When it comes to imprisoning our citizens, DC is #1.
The DC Council has repeatedly chosen policies that enhance sentences in a way that increases the number of our fellow citizens who are incarcerated, despite evidence that this is not making DC’s residents any safer. At the current incarceration rates, there is ample evidence that reducing sentencing at the margin would decrease crime.
Today, our crime rate is near its fifty-five year low—and a small recent uptick should not be cause to repeat the disastrous policies of the 70s, 80s, and 90s that got us our #1 status.
Instead, we should work to reduce sentences across the board—we must become significantly less punitive or else continue to lose our fellow citizens to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The Second Look bill currently being considered does this in a very small way. Its greatest weakness is that it countenances post-sentencing modifications ONLY for those whose crimes were committed before the age of 25, on the theory that the young adult brain is still developing. However, we really ought to offer post-sentencing modifications for everyone regardless of age since we are assessing rehabilitation, not the degree of culpability.
The American Law Institute, an association of law faculty that maintain and amend the Model Penal Code, updated the MPC with Second Look post-sentencing review in 2017 in light of the inadequacies of parole board reviews. It behooves us to follow them, at least for those offenders who were 18-25 years old at the time of their offence.
A Second Look is an evaluation of rehabilitation: it gives us an opportunity to live up to the ideal of prisons as correctional rather than merely retributive. Punishment is—and must be—predicated on the idea that the offender, like the victim, is a member of our community who will have the opportunity to be restored to full membership.
At the Pivot Program we have 15 Pivot Fellows studying entrepreneurship alongside a traditional liberal arts curriculum, including two IRAA 1.0 clients. Through my work with the Georgetown Prisons and Justice Initiative, the Prison Scholars Program, and the Paralegal Program I’ve had the opportunity to work with several IRAA 1.0 clients, as well as many who would qualify for post-sentencing review under the Second Look legislation.
We are incredibly lucky to have
started our programs at around the same time that the IRAA clients were
returning to DC—and I can report that our programs both inside and outside the
Jail are desperate for more participants like the ones that IRAA has granted
Kareem McCraney, Charles Fantroy, Tyrone Walker, Halim Flowers, Troy Burner, Mustafa Zulu, and Momolu Stewart: I have been working with incarcerated students for almost a decade and these are among the best students I have taught in all that time. But we are just as excited to work with students who would qualify for review under the Second Look Act. In particular I would highlight the current mentors on the Young Men Emerging unit at DC’s Correctional Treatment Facility: Joel Caston and Michael Woody.
These men seem exceptional to all
who meet them, and they are truly excellent students and teachers. But the
truth is that there hundreds more like them among our fellow citizens
imprisoned in the FBOP—men and women whose talents are currently unavailable to
us here in the District, and slated to be wasted for decades longer, because
they received very long sentences for crimes committed after their 18th
birthday, yet while they were still too young to have the full cognitive
capacities of adulthood.
I want to point to three challenges that will continue to plague returning citizens in DC, whether from IRAA-style post-sentencing reviews or the 5,000 citizens returning to the District every year:
Returning citizens still face significant obstacles to employment for crimes that are unrelated to the types of work they pursue. The stigma of incarceration is still far too great, and the best evidence suggests that merely “banning the box” without other supports extends this stigma to all young Black and Latino men. Thus we simply MUST find ways to create fewer returning citizens by incarcerating fewer of our fellow citizens in the first place, and to create positive employment signals for returning citizens that will combat this stigma.
Housing insecurity is a major problem for returning citizens generally—and this has hit the Pivot Program in predictable ways, with several promising fellows losing significant class and internship time as formerly-secure housing situations became unsettled. The Pivot Fellows were DC residents before they were shipped off to the Federal Bureau of Prisons but they have returned to a rapidly and severely gentrifying city. Often their reentry plans require them to reside with family members who have left the District in the intervening years—and this effectively outsources our obligations to Virginia and Maryland. Allowing former DC residents to secure residency status through MORCA so that they can continue to access DC’s reentry programs while temporarily residing outside of the District is the least we can do for them. As I have tried to show, we otherwise risk losing some extraordinary human capital to other localities.
Finally, our program is highly dependent on the $10/hr subsidized training wage from DC DOES which supports both the Pivot Fellows’ education and work experience. The training wage is designed to be unpalatably low so as to incentive the search for full-time unsubsidized employment, which isn’t fully compatible with our program’s goal of keeping Pivot fellows engaged over the whole ten month program. At Georgetown we subsidize these stipends to raise the effective hourly rate to $15/hour. It would be helpful to our work if they were able to cover a living wage either as a base rate or as an incentive bonus for consistent performance. While we are happy to subsidize the DC DOES stipend in this cohort, continuing to do so is a significant private philanthropy burden that will hamper our ability to scale. If DC is serious about raising the minimum wage, then training wages like those offered by Pivot and Project Empowerment must rise as well.
DC is in an enviable position: we are poised to do the right thing for all our fellow citizens. We should pass Second Look, end a significant injustice, and reap the dividends. Thank you for your time.
(I’ve spent a good deal of the last six months working on the Pivot Program that launched last month. Pivot combines internships with college-level classes in business, entrepreneurship, the liberal arts, and humanities. Now that journalists are starting to cover it, I can share some reflections from this work!)
That means that there are probably 67,000 “justice-involved” DC residents, and while we have fairly strong “ban the box” laws in place it’s clear that a history of incarceration still affects people’s prospects. From my work with incarcerated students at JCI developing the Prison Scholars Program and the UB Second Chance College Program, I’ve often heard from students inside that they want more training in business and entrepreneurship. They recognize that one way to avoid discrimination in the job market is to work for themselves. (There are still many other collateral consequences of a conviction that can trip them up.)
Now, most of my friends are in the liberal arts, and so we’re all just a little suspicious of business schools. The dismal science of economics as a kind of worldly philosophy makes sense to us: the myths tell us that the ancient philosopher Thales fell into a well while staring at the sky, but his observations meant that he was also able to predict the weather and corner the market on olive oil presses. Business as a vocation (like law, medicine, the military, or the clergy) is a modern fact that confuses traditionalists and enrages critics of capitalism.
Yet at its best, an entrepreneur is someone who looks around them and asks: what can I do to serve my fellow citizens? What can we do to improve the world? What should we do together? Many entrepreneurs do not start their own businesses: they work within existing institutions to change and improve them. Cultivating the entrepreneurial mindset is about helping participants see themselves as agents who can plan and co-create value with their customers, neighbors, and fellow citizens. Seeing oneself as efficacious and mutually responsible is thus an important element of entrepreneurship.
If you’re a regular reader, you’ll recognize that what I described above is also the way that we in civic studies describe citizenship. It’s an idea from Hannah Arendt, Elinor Ostrom, and Jane Mansbridge: to act as a co-creator of our shared world. I think, at its best, that entrepreneurship is a particular approach to citizenship, and not simply a matter of disrupting older industries in pursuit of profit. It’s about trying to find new ways of being of use to each other. And people with a history of incarceration are increasingly marginalized and rendered superfluous in our society–they need and deserve a way of being treated as dignified and valuable.
Obviously, we cannot ignore the issue of race and racism. Mass incarceration has been called “The New Jim Crow” because it disproportionately hurts African-Americans and their communities. There can be no doubt that incarceration in the United States is driven by white supremacy, even in cities like Washington, DC that were majority Black during the time that they incarcerated so many. (See James Forman’s work for more on this theme!)
Sometimes the rhetoric of “human capital” hurts my heart. Prisoners and formerly imprisoned people are not just lost wages and unfounded startups: they’re our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings. They’re my friends and my students! But in a world dominated by profit, loss, growth, and stagnation it seems to work better to make the argument about “hidden gems in the rough.” That’s fine: if that’s what it takes to oppose mass incarceration today, that’s what we’ll do. But the United States has millions more people incarcerated than it ought to have–and we need to tackle that sooner rather than later.
We know that the Pivot Fellows can be leaders. I’ve seen this firsthand with the Friend of a Friend Program and the Alternatives to Violence Project. Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people who succeed in college courses develop the leadership skills that are useful both inside and outside the prison system. Imprisoned college students and graduates frequently become positive role models for younger prisoners, and have created service programs that focus on conflict resolution, youth development and other issues that are critical to personal transformation. Formerly incarcerated professionals like Dwayne Betts, Shon Hopwood, and Chris Wilson are both positive role models and reminders of that lost talent locked away in our nations’ prisons and jails. But these extraordinary men are not so unusual–there are tens of thousands more like them behind bars. I am certain that the Pivot Program will be the incubator for some who I will soon be glad to list alongside them.