Published on Sunday, December 28, 2003 by the Seattle Times
A Better Deal for Ex-offenders
by Neal Peirce
No job. No money. No driver's license. No home. And a family that's likely to be disgusted and angry with you.
The prospects are not quite that gloomy for all the 600,000 ex-offenders released by America's prison system each year. But they are for many. We Americans seem to be deeply conflicted on whether we want to help, ignore or just police our ex-offenders.
And there's a grim reality: Within three years of release, close to two-thirds of prisoners are again arrested, more innocent people fall victim to crime. Offenders' own lives are shattered even more, and taxpayers receive no relief from soaring prison costs.
Yet there's a glimmer of hope on the corrections front. After two decades of upwardly spiraling incarcerations — this proud democracy entered the 21st century with the world's highest imprisonment rate — at least a dozen states have actually reduced prison populations since 2002. A substantial number are abolishing mandatory sentencing laws, speeding up parole and diverting some prisoners into treatment.
Budget pressures account for part of the switch. But enlightenment — judges, for example, demanding more discretion in sentences — is starting to shift us away from the simplistic "lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key" approaches of the '80s and '90s.
None of that, though, makes life any easier for offenders who've done their time but re-enter a cold world in which assorted laws and disinterested bureaucracies deny them every right from food stamps to public housing, education loans to voting.
And then former prisoners face what's often the toughest job of all: landing a job. Employers may deny it, but many have a de facto "no felons need apply" policy. George Collins of Fort Wayne learned that when he was released in 2000 from Indiana's Plainfield Correctional Facility, the same prison where Mike Tyson had been held.
A veteran of six years with the Marine Corps, Collins got into big trouble selling, using and then committing robbery for drugs. Completing two years on his first sentencing, he quickly got into trouble again and was obliged to serve eight more years.
Released in 2000, he relates, "I came into a world I was very lost in."
Collins had a big advantage: certificates for heating and air-conditioning repair that he had acquired in prison. The problem when he went for job interviews: "People were impressed, but when they saw I was a felon their whole expression changed. One lady said I was hired and fired in a single breath."
Luckily, Collins had been accepted into a "Re-Entry Court" process that Allen County/Fort Wayne had adopted under an experimental community-transition statute supported by Frank O'Bannon, Indiana's late governor. That connected him with a "Family Reconnect" program begun by clergy of the local United Christ Church, and in turn with the Urban League, which referred him to a heating and air-conditioning firm.
On his application Collins didn't note he was a felon. But during the interview, fearing the omission would return to haunt him, he acknowledged his felon background. The employer responded: "You seem to have learned your lesson. We'll give you a chance."
The story ends happily: Collins has completed two successful years as an installer with the firm, his life, marriage and family all intact.
The ReEntry Court, one of the pioneering efforts to aid returning offenders across the country, was conceived by Terry Donahue (a Fort Wayne native working for the U.S. Justice Department), along with Allen County Judge John Surbeck, Fort Wayne's Mayor Graham Richard, and Allen County Community Corrections Director Sheila Hudson.
"We did mapping of last-known addresses of returning offenders and found them heavily concentrated in (impoverished) southeast Fort Wayne," explains Richard. "We decided $20 and a bus ticket wasn't enough."
Returning offenders get several months off their prison time for agreeing to 12 months of ReEntry Court jurisdiction — a team of the county court, city police, parole officers, mental health, family/victim investigators and case managers that meets frequently to guide each offender's reintegration.
His convening power as mayor, says Richard, helps assemble that local team in addition to persuading state agencies (work-force development, for example) to focus beyond their departmental "silos" and clear obstacles ex-offenders frequently confront.
Initiated without special federal aid, the ReEntry Court has helped two-thirds of its initial 152 ex-offenders steer clear of arrest or imprisonment.
Applied to larger ex-offender populations, re-entry courts could save millions of dollars — and the lives of both offenders and their families, says Anthony Hudson of Allen County Community Corrections.
Copyright © 2003 Seattle Times Company