In February, I devoted my column to the issue of mass incarceration within our criminal justice system. The argument I advanced then, one which I still believe valid now, was that disproportionate contact with the criminal justice system within communities of color naturally led to mass incarceration of people of color. That column stimulated a number of KCBA members to call me and discuss the many other possible explanations for our nation's statistically proven, disproportionate contact and mass incarceration phenomena.
Most of the responses I received referred to educational opportunities, anemic economic development, the absence of affordable housing, inadequate public transportation, health and mental care needs, localized high crime rates, sentencing decisions and much more. Yes, without a doubt, mass incarceration is more complex than just disproportionate contact. Yet, if other explanations for the phenomena don't always involve race, why does it statistically appear that enforcement and arrests still occur disproportionately within communities of color?
Take, for example, the somewhat extreme case of New York City's "stop-and-frisk" policy under Mayor Bloomberg, which reportedly ensnared more than 400,000 innocent African-American and Latino New Yorkers.1 In 2012, New York City's police department reported 532,911 stop-and-frisks.2 While African-Americans and Latinos represented a mere 4.7% of the city's population in 2012, African-American and Latino males between the ages of 14 and 24 accounted for a remarkable 40.6% of the stops.3
The NYPD ostensibly instituted the policy to reduce both the prevalence of weapons and violent crime. To Mayor Bloomberg's credit, the city recently experienced a significant decline in homicides. However, a significant number of young African-American and Latino males were targeted, and more people were arrested and charged following a stop-and-frisk for marijuana possession than any other reason.4
So, given the many other reasoned arguments to explain mass incarceration, I continue to wonder what policy changes one can make to address disproportionate contact and therefore mass incarceration of people of color. Do we start with something along the earliest point of contact - educational opportunities? Do we move farther along the continuum and hope that stimulating economic development works, or do we promote the development of affordable housing?
After a couple of discussions with King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, followed up with discussions with his Chief of Staff Leesa Manion and Director of Community Partnerships Carla Lee, I was reminded and convinced of the potential of re-entry programs designed to help offenders who, once released, achieve successful reintegration into society and avoid recidivism. Now, admittedly, addressing the underlying root causes for mass incarceration after someone has already been jailed feels a bit like addressing the symptoms, as opposed to vaccinating against a preventable disease. But the discussions got me thinking about the very end of the continuum - after someone is released from prison.
What if we started addressing mass incarceration by reducing recidivism - providing coordinated shelter security, counseling, job-placement assistance and other services to encourage successful reintegration? Assuming that policing and enforcement decisions were equitable to start, wouldn't that also, in part, achieve the same objective and end the revolving door of incarcerating people of color?
Having represented pro bono clients seeking clemency, I was well aware of the hurdles that offenders face on the "outside" and the real risk that reintegration barriers would lead to additional contacts with law enforcement. What I had not considered in my earlier column was that disproportionate contact also occurs within the cohort of men and women released after serving their time, and that those who reoffend represent a disproportionate portion of the prison population, too. In other words, mass incarceration of people of color is as much a function of disproportionate contact through initial policing and enforcement decisions, as it is with poor reintegration and recidivism.
According to one study, nearly 50% of all adult men and women incarcerated in Washington as of June 2012 were euphemistically "readmitted" due to a new felony conviction.5 Of those released from prison to King County, 40% were sent back within five years.6 While these statistics do not provide us with a window into the racial breakdown for recidivism, they certainly provide the basis for a reasonable policy response to the issue of mass reincarceration: the development of a comprehensive, state-supported, re-entry program.
Now, even with this policy option, I haven't lost sight of my initial concern; that is, we must ensure that our policing and enforcement decisions are equitable. Otherwise, as evidenced by New York City's stop-and-frisk policy, and as my own experiences have taught me, disproportionate contact with people of color will continue. However, for now, I'm focused on perhaps a more manageable aspect of mass incarceration.
Washington's Department of Corrections estimates that each of its 12 adult-prison facilities costs approximately $45 million per year to operate.7 With the potential that incarceration rates will continue to grow unabated with each new piece of legislation that addresses crime and/or sentencing, one has to consider the cost of building new prison facilities, which by some accounts can top $250 million for each 2,000-bed prison.8 Would it not make better financial sense to invest in reducing the need for new prisons by reducing the number of those who reoffend?
While approaching the problem from this perspective, we could certainly continue to strengthen our focus on truancy laws to ensure that children stay in school; to support local diversion programs that give young offenders an opportunity to engage in voluntary training programs instead of juvenile detention; to re-evaluate our approach to non-violent drug offenses; and to pursue the full range of economic development opportunities. In doing so, society's approach to the problem would undoubtedly be more comprehensive.
On September 12, 2012, the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office held a Re-entry Summit that pulled together a broad array of community leaders, including public officials, representatives from the Washington State Department of Corrections, the NAACP, The Black Prisoners Caucus, El Centro de la Raza, the faith community and others, to discuss the challenges of prisoners re-entering the community. The overall goal of the summit was to "elevate the level of discussion around our shared responsibility to help with the re-entry transition, and to make practical recommendations for increased government action."9 To quote Satterberg: "If we can reduce the rate of recidivism through smart investments in re-entry strategies, we can improve public safety, save taxpayer money that would otherwise go to prison budgets, and re-establish former inmates as productive members of society."
The summit's written report, "Investing for No Return," lists 12 recommended components to a successful re-entry program:
1. Provide men and women leaving prison with a package of information to assist in their transition (e.g., state identification card, Social Security card and an updated resume).
2. Prior to release, provide inmates with guidance to determine their eligibility for various benefits, including housing, food assistance and other basic needs.
3. Identify and address outstanding warrants and court obligations, and other issues such as child support payment plans, while men and women are incarcerated, so that they are released with a clear plan to address pending obligations.
4. Provide a community reorientation program that provides practical information about where to locate support and other services within the community.
5. Support and expand existing Department of Corrections personal improvement programs that allow inmates to grow through regular interactions with peer mentors.
6. Offer inmates and their families skills training on family dynamics, communications and parenting.
7. Establish a statewide re-entry council to track, oversee and guide re-entry practices and policy.
8. Expand work release programs to increase employment opportunities for inmates once they are released from prison.
9. Offer incentives for those contracting with the State to employ a certain number of former inmates.
10. Provide treatment for mental health and substance abuse on demand, as opposed to requiring treatment as a condition of release.
11. Convert community supervision from a monitoring to a coaching model, where successful re-entry (not corrective action) is the performance measurement for community corrections officers.
12. Increase community awareness about the need for successful re-entry programs.
So, I ask you, can we advance the policy dialogue on re-entry programs? If with modest investments such programs prove to be fiscally responsible and effective, reduce our prison-building budgets, keep our communities safe, and reduce the disproportionate incarceration of people of color, wouldn't they make good "cents"?
5 R. Barnoski (1997), "Standards for Improving Research Effectiveness in Adult and Juvenile Justice," Washington State Institute for Public Policy, Doc. No. 97-12-1201.
6 King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office (2012), "Investing for No Return," Final Report on the KCPAO's Re-entry Summit.
7 S. Oas, M. Miller, and E. Drake (2006), "Evidence-Based Policy Options to Reduce Future Prison Construction, Criminal Justice Costs, and Crime Rates," Washington State Institute for Public Policy, Doc. No. 06-10-1201.
9 "Investing for No Return" at 4.