May 9, 2017 10:04 am

Here are the 3 steps everyone agrees we need to take to tackle recidivism

It's simple: Arrest fewer people. Focus on reentry. Replicate what works. Now who has the political will?

Reentry Project panel: moderator Solomon Jones, Valerie Todd-Listman, Zane; Leon King II, Reuben Jones and Emma Restrepo.

(Photo by Christopher Wink)

Like most wicked problems, many of the solutions to the problem of reentry are clear. The trouble is prioritizing the will to implement them.

When you consider reentry, that big and wide-ranging sector of human services focused on the vulnerable time when citizens return to communities after serving in prison, start with knowing the United States imprisons people at a higher rate than any other country on the planet, and that Philadelphia, specifically, has a blistering recidivism rate, to great negative consequences.

Read our reentry overview

“We need to stop talking and act,” said Leon King II, the former Philadelphia Prisons commissioner, who has run to be a Court of Common Pleas judge and now works in the Maryland state correctional system. King was part of a panel discussing issues of reentry and recidivism Monday night, organized by 900AM WURD, the city’s Black-owned talk radio station, with The Reentry Project, a partnership of several media outlets, including event partner WHYY. More than 125 people attended, crowding the stairway of the basement auditorium of the African American Museum in Old City.

Is the entire system broken?

No matter how popular an applause line could follow, if you ask former “pit bull” U.S. Attorney General Zane Memeger, he won’t take the chance in saying so.

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“I’m focused on a reset of the system,” he said, taking a long view, dating back the notoriously harsh and counter-productive mandatory minimum movement of the 1980s. Since then, “we’ve seen progress.”

Now in private practice with Morgan Lewis, what does Memeger think about the chances of that progress continuing with the direction of a new presidential administration and U.S. Attorney General?

“I’ve been losing a lot of sleep about how we’re choosing to invest,” Memeger said, expressing no hopefulness and declining to prognosticate further.

So what needs to be done? The panel was in pretty clear agreement.

1) Arrest fewer people

Like other cities, Philadelphia is aiming to do just that. It’s already happening.

Moreover, last year, a $3.5 million MacArthur grant was announced aimed at reducing the city’s prison population by more than a third. Part of that can include marijuana decriminalization in the city, but the largest slice of Pennsylvania’s prison population is in its state, not municipal, prisons. Good thing, then, that Gov. Tom Wolf wants the same, knowing weed busts are “clogging up our prison.”

That’s among the easiest ways to address a growing prison population: “Just stop arresting so many people,” said former Philly prisons chief King.

2) Focus more funding on reentry than incarceration

“Your budget says what your priorities are,” said Solomon Jones, a 900AM WURD host and the event’s moderator. And that is among the largest shortcomings for addressing reentry meaningfully.

“We know what works already,” said King. Rather than replicate successes or give “a little seed money” to hundreds of nonprofits to try new ways at intervening before prison is a destination or otherwise reintegrating those returning home, the city should tackle the issue that prison administrators like King are kept in the same box — a box that includes modest budgetary increases correlated to prison population size.

That’s one reason for years many have tried to make imprisonment a budgetary case (finding a “real cost”), one way that conservatives and liberals have come together on the mass incarceration rebellion. The hope is budgetary priorities might follow. (Note that in 2010, it cost Pennsylvania an average of $42,339 per year to house one inmate.)

“Reentry must begin inside prisons,” said Memeger.

3) Replicate programs that work

If there is progress on arresting fewer people and realigning budgetary priorities, what to do with those already in the pipeline, like the 20,000 people returning home from Pennsylvania prisons every year?

Look at Reuben Jones, the executive director of Frontline Dads, a mentorship program. Jones said there are three big reasons he’s stayed out of prison: He found a support system, he got an education to up his skills and he accepted his responsibility for his actions so he could put the work in to get his life back on track.

All three of those reasons related to his ability to get a job, a huge obstacle for many returning citizens, and add other coping mechanisms. (Jones also spoke of the importance of therapy for returning citizens.)

Normalizing this conversation — one in 31 U.S. adults are in some form of correctional control, according to the NAACP — can help force change. Valerie Todd-Listman has been arrested dozens of times, but not since 2009 when she first encountered Mothers in Charge, another nonprofit reentry program.

“My family was addicts and criminals,” so being released from prison to them “wasn’t going to work for me,” she said. But through the Mothers in Charge program, she found footing and a job and a voice. “If you change the thinking, you can change the woman.”


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