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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Reform is needed in inmate re-entry process

UPDATED: Mon., April 25, 2016

Steve Woolworth

This week marks the beginning of our nation’s first-ever National Reentry Week – another sign of accelerating political momentum around long-needed criminal justice and correctional reform.

In cities like Spokane, which have been impacted by persistent crime, investing in re-entry makes sense both from the standpoint of improving public safety and offering justice-involved men and women the opportunity to change the direction of their lives.

Since the 2007 release of the influential Pew Charitable Trust report “One in 100,” which shone a spotlight on mass incarceration in the United States, awareness of the problem has grown considerably. It has been mentioned in presidential debates, inspired countless books, articles and documentaries, spawned collaborations between the most adversarial of conservative and liberal groups, and even moved President Obama to visit a federal prison last year – a first for a sitting president.

But even as the country begins to recognize the mounting damage associated with what a 2012 New Yorker article called “the caging of America,” one salient point often goes unmentioned: Some 97 percent of the more than 2.2 million people behind bars will one day return to our communities. When considered in context, the numbers are sobering. More than 10,000 people return each week from federal and state prison – or more than 600,000 per year. At the local level, more than 11 million Americans are booked in and released from county jails every year. In Washington state alone some 8,000 men and women are released annually from the Department of Corrections, a number that does not include federal prisons and county jails.

Upon return these men and women encounter a complex web of barriers and entanglements connected to the stigma associated with a criminal record. From the labor and housing markets to financial credit and tuition supports, these sanctions limit access to future opportunities and significantly restrict one’s ability to reintegrate into community life. They also undermine public safety by institutionalizing inequity, burdening already strained families and pushing individuals – many with significant risks and needs – into increasingly desperate circumstances. Long-standing racial disparities in the criminal justice system ensure these challenges are experienced most acutely in communities of color.

For these reasons and more, the designation of National Reentry Week (the last week in April) by the U.S. Department of Justice constitutes another important step toward raising awareness and mobilizing the needed political will to achieve a fairer and more just second-chance society.

In Washington state, communities have too often succumbed to “not in my backyard” sentiments in order to resist important re-entry initiatives. However, the tide may be turning. The Legislature just established a statewide re-entry council to foster collaboration between victims, the criminal justice system, service providers and impacted individuals. The council will make policy and funding recommendations with the goal of enhancing public safety through improved re-entry outcomes. The Department of Corrections has also come to the table with the creation of a re-entry division to consolidate and coordinate system efforts. What’s more, a number of jurisdictions, including Spokane, have passed “ban the box” initiatives to reduce employment discrimination against individuals with criminal records, and provider coalitions across the state are working to build local capacity by enhancing service referrals and partnerships, sponsoring conferences and advocating for needed supports to assist with the re-entry process.

So as we embark on the first ever National Reentry Week, let’s begin by recognizing that more than 65 million Americans, or some 20 percent of the population, have a criminal record. We probably all know, or know of, someone trying to rebuild their life post-incarceration. As such, we all have a stake in whether our community upholds second chances or capitulates to the business-as-usual exclusionary politics that restrict where and how people re-enter society.

National Reentry Week, then, is not only about raising awareness, but also understanding how, on a fundamentally human level, “my backyard” connects to “our backyard.”

Steve Woolworth is vice president of Treatment & Reentry Services for Pioneer Human Services.

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