With criminal justice bill passed, what about services for ex-inmates?
While state leaders talked about reducing recidivism, reentry programs to do that were being cut
LAWMAKERS PASSED A long-awaited, comprehensive criminal justice reform bill on Wednesday. But to fully realize its widely touted goal of reducing recidivism they will need to back some of the statutory changes and reform rhetoric with tangible resources.
That was the message at a Boston City Council hearing on inmate reentry convened on Tuesday night at the South Bay House of Correction. The council’s Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee traveled to the Suffolk County facility to hear from current inmates as well as ex-offenders and services providers.
Ironically, crucial reentry services have been cut during the same time leaders on Beacon Hill have been debating criminal justice reform and wrestling with ways to reduce incarceration rates, which are roughly four times higher than they were in the 1970s.
Last May, CommonWealth reported that Boston’s widely acclaimed inmate reentry programs had been quietly shut down months earlier when efforts to renew a federal grant failed. It meant the end of a program called the Boston Reentry Initiative, which assigned case managers to work with inmates returning to Boston neighborhoods from the Suffolk County House of Correction, as well as a parallel program called Overcoming the Odds that worked with those returning to the city from state prisons.
It makes for a huge disconnect, said John Larivee, president and CEO of Community Resources for Justice, the nonprofit that provided case managers for Overcoming the Odds.
“On the one hand, we have a criminal justice reform package that’s pinning its hopes on the goal of recidivism reduction,” Larivee said prior to Tuesday’s hearing. “At the same time, we’ve seen programs, including some of ours, that focus on reentry close.”
On Monday, another program run by his agency, a residential program in Boston for women returning from incarceration, was shut down because funding dried up.
The bill passed by the House and Senate on Wednesday eliminates some mandatory minimum drug sentences, raises the threshold for a felony larceny charge from $250 to $1200 and includes several other reforms aimed at reducing incarceration rates. But it contains no funding for community programs designed to help offenders after they’re released with housing, mental health services, employment, or other things that can increase their chances of success outside prison.
More than a third of those leaving Massachusetts state prisons are convicted of a new crime within three years. Larivee said community-based residential reentry programs can cut recidivism rates by up to 25 percent.
Community Resources for Justice is calling on the Legislature to allocate $5 million in the upcoming budget for community-based residential reentry programs.
Massachusetts spends more than $13 million on education and other programming for inmates in state prisons, according to the Department of Correction. But the state spends just $90,000 a year on community-based residential programs for those leaving state prison, according to Community Resources for Justice. The group says Michigan spent more than $13 million in 2016 for local prison reentry services and Ohio spent more than $66 million last year for state-contracted halfway houses.
“The final package represents a huge turning point for the state, but I would have loved to have seen it include an investment mechanism,” said Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who sponsored the justice reinvestment language.
Damon Cannon, who served an 11½-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter, testified at Tuesday’s hearing about the struggle he faced after being released six years ago from MCI-Cedar Junction. “Reentry is challenging,” Damon told the councilors. “It wasn’t easy for me. A lot of the programs are pretty much a joke.” But that was not the case, he said, with the reentry program run through the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation.
Cannon credited the program’s two reentry counselors who worked closely with him, Linda Mello and Rev. Clovis Turner, with helping him turn his life around.
“These are my angels,” Cannon said of the two women, who were with him at the hearing. With their help, Cannon said, he’s now in Local 6 of the insulators and asbestos workers union.
“I understand it’s about money,” he said of the shortage of reentry services. “But it’s also about life.”
Last year, Boston opened a new Office of Returning Citizens to work with the 3,000 people who return to Boston each year from federal, state, and county correctional facilities. Its three-person staff helps former inmates find their way to existing programs, but the office doesn’t provide the actual case management services offered by reentry programs.
Boston City Council President Andrea Campbell, who chaired Tuesday’s hearing at the jail, said it’s vital to restore reentry programs that have been cut and fund new services if the state is serious about reducing recidivism.
“It’s one thing to have a big criminal justice reform bill passed. It’s another to have the resources to implement the things we say we want to get done effectively,” said Campbell.Chang-Diaz said she’ll be pushing for the Legislature to take up that challenge as debate about the 2019 budget gets underway.
“I hope that all the people who have been very vociferous in talking about public safety and the need to keep neighborhoods safe will be equally vociferous when it comes time to funding reentry and prevention services,” she said.