Boston reentry initiative hits the skids
Award-winning program to aid those leaving prison loses federal funding
BOSTON’S WIDELY ACCLAIMED prisoner reentry program, which is aimed at reducing recidivism by helping offenders who are released from prison with everything from employment and housing to addiction services, was quietly shut down last fall when a federal grant funding the efforts wasn’t renewed.
The shutdown, which was never announced, is a big setback to city efforts to combat one of the most stubborn realities of the criminal justice system — the huge percentage of those released from incarceration who wind up back behind bars within several years.
The axing of the programs occurred only months after Mayor Marty Walsh announced plans last June to open a city office to coordinate reentry programs. State leaders, who have embraced a national effort to rethink criminal justice policies, also say they are committed to bolstering reentry programs aimed at reducing recidivism.
According to the nonpartisan Council of State Governments, which has been working with state leaders on criminal justice reform plans, two-thirds of those released from Massachusetts county jails face new charges within three years, with almost half of them convicted. Of those leaving Massachusetts state prisons, 57 percent face a new arraignment within three years, with 38 percent of them convicted.
“It’s absolutely unsettling that the Boston Reentry Initiative as well as programs like Overcoming the Odds have been completely unfunded, and most folks in the community have no idea,” said City Councilor Andrea Campbell, chair of the council’s Committee on Public Safety and Criminal Justice.
In February, the city and its nonprofit partners patched together a plan and restarted the Boston Reentry Initiative, but not at full strength. Overcoming the Odds remains shut down.
The Boston Reentry Initiative was launched in 2001. It has been supported with a combination of federal funding and, at one point, a state grant focused on preventing gang violence.
The program was ahead of the curve in taking on the challenge of lowering recidivism, a goal that is now becoming widely embraced as a central challenge facing the criminal justice system. In 2004, the Boston reentry effort received the International Association of Chiefs of Police community policing award.
Three years ago, the initiative was expanded to also work with high-risk inmates leaving state prisons for Boston neighborhoods.
The programs, which were funded through the Boston Police Department, identified prisoners considered to be at moderate or high risk of committing new crimes. Groups of inmates were brought together to hear presentations from law enforcement officials and prosecutors as well as from social service providers and faith-based leaders. The message to inmates was that law enforcement agencies had an eye on them and would aggressively prosecute any return to criminal activity, but there was also lots of help available to those ready to get on a more productive path when they were released.
At the heart of the programs were case managers who worked with prisoners during the months before their release and then worked to connect them with services, including housing and job opportunities, for several months following their return to the community. Each program worked with about 20 new inmates per month.
Cheevers said federal officials told her office early last year that the Second Chance program wanted to focus on funding new pilot projects to grow the number of reentry programs nationally, and that funding established programs like Boston’s was less of a priority. The city submitted an application during last year’s new round of grants, but it was clear “we’re not what they’re looking for,” she said.
When the application was turned down and funding ended last fall, monthly sessions held with inmates at South Bay House of Correction ended and the city laid off the three case managers working with the program. Also laid off were the three case managers working with state prisoners through the Overcoming the Odds program.
Walsh said the funding loss has caused “a little pause or a stutter” in the reentry initiative, but vowed to do everything possible to see that programs are fully restored. “We’ll continue to work on all cylinders with the city agencies” to do that, he said.
In February, after a four month gap, the monthly reentry sessions with soon-to-be-released inmates at South Bay were restarted, but the program is not operating at its previous capacity.
Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins said the city’s Youth Opportunities Unlimited program stepped in to provide two case managers for the program. “Mayor Walsh has made a commitment to stay with the program. I don’t see him walking away,” said Tompkins.
But the two case workers only work with offenders following their release, unlike the three case managers laid off last fall, who began their work with inmates while they were still incarcerated. Developing relationships with offenders while they are still in prison has been a hallmark of the reentry programs.
Daniel Mulhern, director of city’s office of public safety, said the new city reentry office that Walsh announced last year, the Office of Returning Citizens, should be up and running by July. “Mayor Walsh deeply believes in second chances and redemption,” said Mulhern. “His vision is to utilize that office to coordinate all reentry strategies for neighbors coming back to Boston.”
But whether the reentry programs will be fully restored remains an open question.
Campbell, the city council public safety committee chair, has requested that the mayor include $250,000 in the upcoming 2018 budget to restart the Overcoming the Odds program with inmates released from state prisons.
Last year’s shutdown of reentry programs “was very distressing given that, at the state level we’re talking about criminal justice reform and how we do a better job when it comes to reentry,” said Campbell. “The city of Boston is slated to open an office of reentry, yet programs we know to work are under threat of not operating any more.”
A 2009 analysis of the Boston Reentry Initiative found positive impacts on recidivism among the very high-risk group the program targeted. Three years after their release, 77.8 percent of program participants had been rearrested compared with 87.7 percent of a matched group of controls who did not receive reentry services. Reentry participants were 30 percent less likely to have been rearrested for a violent crime, with 27.8 percent charged with a violent offense compared with 39.2 percent of those in the control group.
A 2015 report from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, which looked at reentry studies across the country, said the most rigorously designed studies have yielded mixed results on the effectiveness of reentry programs.
Interest in reentry programs is nonetheless growing. “The idea of reentry has become a core part of how people in public safety define their work,” said Suzanne Brown-McBride, deputy director of the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center, which provides technical assistance to recipients of the Second Chance grants. She said there is a growing appreciation for the fact that nearly all of those who are incarcerated will eventually be released, and that it’s in everyone’s interest for them to succeed. “That’s is a vast change from 10 years ago,” she said.
In 2015, the Worcester County Sheriff’s Department was awarded $750,000 from the federal Second Chance program to set up a reentry program.
As for Boston’s loss of federal funding, Brown-McBride said there is often an expectation that grant recipients will figure out other funding sources to sustain effective programs. She said the Second Chance program has recently awarded about $60 million a year to programs nationally. “The majority of the reentry need can’t be funded federally over time,” she said.
John Larivee, president of Community Resources for Justice, the nonprofit that provided case managers for Overcoming the Odds, said other public and private funding sources need to step up to keep the Boston programs going. “Now that the state is embracing this work around reentry and recidivism reduction, here is a perfect opportunity to show if that’s what we’re serious about,” he said.“There’s so much interest in reducing recidivism now, and we have a program that’s been recognized for doing that,” said Jack McDevitt, director of the Institute for Race and Justice at Northeastern University. “We can’t just walk away from this.”