Rosenberg on Reentry: The Importance of Peers and Good Programs

In two recent NYT blog posts, Pulitzer prize awardee Tina Rosenberg reflects on the conditions for successful prisoner reentry.

Rosenberg’s first blog post mentions the meager release packages for inmates exiting correctional institutions and the lack of rehabilitative programs, but emphasizes the need to provide them with “a better class of friends”: People committed to AA meetings and GED classes, who will motivate them rather than drag them down the recidivist path. She mentions two programs: The Castle in New York, and San Francisco’s Delancey Street Foundation. Here is some of what she has to say about the latter:

People come to live at the Delancey Street residential building for an average of four years. Each resident is required to get at least a high school equivalency degree and learn several marketable job skills, such as furniture making, sales or accounting. The organization is completely run by its residents, who teach each other — there is no paid staff at all. Teaching others is part of the rehabilitation process for Delancey residents. The residence is financed in part by private donations, but the majority of its financing comes from the businesses the residents run, such as restaurants, event planning, a corporate car service, a moving company and framing shop. All money earned goes to the collective, which pays all its residents’ expenses.

. . .

The Delancey Street residence, which began in 1971, has never been formally evaluated. But there is no question that is phenomenally successful. It has graduated more than 14,000 people from prison into constructive lives. Carol Kizziah, who manages Delancey’s efforts to apply its lessons elsewhere, says that the organization estimates that 75 percent of its graduates go on to productive lives. (For former prisoners who don’t go to Delancey, only 25 to 40 percent avoid re-arrest.) Since it costs taxpayers nothing, from a government’s point of view it could very well be the most cost-effective social program ever devised. The program has established similar Delancey Street communities in Los Angeles, New Mexico, North Carolina and upstate New York. Outsiders have replicated the Delancey Street model in about five other places.

. . .

There are two puzzles here. Delancey Street is now celebrating its 40th anniversary. One would think that by now there would be Delancey 2.0 models sprouting all over. But there are not. A related mystery concerns the idea that underlies both Delancey and the Castle: the importance of pro-social peers. Our guts tell us they matter; we know the effect our friends can have on our behavior. Peer pressure may be the single most important factor getting people into crime — surely it should be employed to get them out again. Yet it is not. Besides Delancey and the Castle, there is probably not a single government agency or citizen group working with former prisoners that lists “clean-living peers” alongside housing, job training and other items on its agenda for what former prisoners need to go straight.

The second blog post expands upon the reasons for reentry failure. Citing David Kirk’s interesting research on the decline in recidivism following Hurricane Katrina, Rosenberg points out how important it is to maintain places that provide support and encounters with reentering peers. She mentions initiatives like Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, and attributes their inadequate-to-nonexistent funding to “tough on crime” political rhetoric and to lack of research showing the decline in recidivism. However, there are grounds for hope, including humonetarianism (a discourse of scarcity that creates a countereffect to punitive policies) — the silver lining of the financial crisis:

The good news is that we may have reached a turning point, a chance at last to see effective anti-crime policies edge out ineffective ones. One reason is the record number of people being released from prison. This has made prisoner re-entry a hot topic in the field of corrections (if still invisible to the rest of the world). The politics, too, have changed. The crime rate throughout the United States has dropped, which means that voters are less panicked about crime and less singleminded about harsh measures.

The public isn’t thinking about crime — but state officials are. States are in budget crisis. Many states are looking for ways to let nonviolent prisoners out — and they can’t afford to see them come back again. California’s three strikes law — your third felony conviction, even if for something minor, brings a 25-year-to-life prison term — is costing the state $500 million a year, according to the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Those costs will rise as the prison population ages as a consequence of the law — housing elderly prisoners can cost upwards of $50,000 per year per inmate. And elderly prisoners are the last people you want in prison, as they are the least likely to re-offend. States are finally getting interested in finding out what actually maximizes the chance that ex-offenders will become good citizens. They’re not going to be able to do that without financing research.

Rosenberg’s posts are a call to conduct empirical research on the recidivism-related implications of reentry programs. As we know, recidivism reports are very problematic. The dismal numbers in CDCR’s recidivism report do not necessarily reflect a “return to a life of crime” as much as they might reflect parole failures and technical parole violations (an aspect regarding which the Supreme Court has recently exhibited surprising naïvete). As this good summary from the NIJ website explains, recidivism is a difficult thing to measure. Studies examining the impact of reentry programs and changes in peer groups on recidivism should be careful in their findings. Assuming such problems can be tackled, funding should be provided to programs with proven effects on recidivism rates, such as the marine technology and carpentry training programs at CDCR.

Props to Michael Sierchio for the link.

LA Times favors parole for youth LWOPs

Today’s LA Times carries this piece:,0,2931752.story subtitled, “Sara Kruzan’s case shows why juveniles should not sentenced to life without parole.”

The Times had previously written in favor of Sen. Yee’s narrowly-defeated SB 399 to change this policy statewide; today’s Times asks Governor Schwarzenegger to offer clemency, if only in this one extreme case.

My favorite quotes: “She has volunteered for dozens of rehabilitation programs and won awards for her participation and attitude. … The CYA felt that she should have been prosecuted as a juvenile rather than as an adult, which would have put her into a rehabilitation program from which she could have been freed by age 25 — seven years ago.”

Sentenced a minor to life behind bars with no chance of parole is a ghastly, inhumane, cruel practice.

Incarceration Length and Recidivism

This morning at CELS I heard a paper by David Abrams titled Building Criminal Capital vs Specific Deterrence: The Effect of Incarceration Length on Recidivism. Abrams sought to figure out what sort of relationships existed between incarceration and recidivism. These sort of studies often present serious challenges, because length of incarceration might reflect other factors about the defendants that might predict recidivism later on. However, Abrams built on an opportunity to control for that, since defendants were randomly assigned to public defenders of differing attorney ability. Attorney ability therefore allowed him to instrument for sentence length. The findings were that the relationship between sentence length and incarceration was not linear. For the lowest sentences, the relationship is negative; it becomes positive for an intermediate sentence length, and then negative for the longest sentences. The conclusions tie the findings with theories of criminal capital formation and with specific deterrence.

Re-Entry, Housing, and the Job Market

I am at the 5th Conference on Empirical Legal Studies at Yale University, and have heard two interesting presentations on re-entry.

Amanda Geller and Marah Curtis’ paper A Sort of Homecoming: Incarceration and the Housing Security of Urban Men compares the housing status of previously incarcerated and non-incarcerated fathers in fragile, poor families. Using a database formed for studying fragile families, Geller and Curtis compare how fathers fare during their child’s infancy in terms of housing. As measures of housing, they use not only eviction, but also other measures mortgage default and living with others. They find that formerly incarcerated fathers have more trouble finding a stable housing situation, and while some of this difficulty is attributed to lack of income, it does not explain away all the difficulty.

Charles Loeffler’s paper The Effects of Imprisonment on Labor Market Participation: Evidence from a Natural Experiment compares the job status of convicted people who were sentenced by high-incarceration and low-incarceration judges. Suprisingly, Loeffler finds that the former tend to fare better in the job market–but only temporarily. This finding might be explained in three main ways: Parole agents do a better job than, say, probation officers in finding jobs for formerly incarcerated people (but not good enough to provide enduring employment); incarceration breaks inmates’ ties to their former environment and therefore requires them to shift to the “covered” economy; or, inmates simply age out of crime while in prison.

Slate/Daedalus new stats on Prison/Poverty cycle

WOW! Great statistics and charts and graphs in this new publication about the school-to-prison pipeline keeping people in poverty. Check out the summary at of the report by Western & Pettit at Here are some stand-out quotes:

“[I]f current incarceration trends hold, fully 68 percent of African-American male high school dropouts born from 1975 to 1979 (at the start of the upward trend in incarceration rates) will spend time living in prison at some point in their lives, as the chart below shows.”

“After being out of prison for 20 years, less than one-quarter of ex-cons who haven’t finished high school were able to rise above the bottom 20 percent of income earners, a far lower percentage than for high-school dropouts who don’t go to prison.”

“University of California at Berkeley professor of law Jonathan Simon writes that these men and women in many ways become the human equivalent of underwater homes bought with subprime mortgages—they are “toxic persons” in the way those homes have been defined as “toxic assets,” condemned to failure.”

Reentry: Felons Cannot be Categorically Excluded as Caregivers

The Chron reports:

An Alameda County judge blocked Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday from excluding convicted felons and shoplifters from providing in-home care in a program that serves 430,000 low-income elderly and disabled Californians.

Superior Court Judge David Hunter had ruled in February that Schwarzenegger’s action was illegal because state law bars workers from the program for 10 years only if they have been convicted of child abuse, elder abuse or defrauding Medi-Cal or any patient.

In-home patients, who have access to their caregivers’ criminal records, can otherwise employ anyone they want, the judge said.

Schwarzenegger, acting by executive order, is seeking to bar from the program anyone ever convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors, which include shoplifting. After appealing Hunter’s ruling in May, the governor had planned to implement his restrictions later this week.
The state’s appeal automatically suspended Hunter’s decision but allowed the judge to reinstate it if he concluded that the new limits on caregivers would cause irreparable harm. Hunter made that finding Tuesday, saying both caregivers and their patients would suffer if the governor’s rules took effect during his appeal.

I find this report fascinating, because it is a reminder of the mistakes we make when we engage in the “othering” of crime. To people in need of caregiving, convicted felons are not necessarily the “other”. They are their parents, siblings and close friends. Attention to these relationships–which surely are not uncommon given the large percentage of Californians who have been convicted and spent time behind bars–is important.

Getting Out and Staying Out

The San Francisco reentry council has a guide, Getting Out and Staying Out, which can be downloaded for free, and provides information on many important topics to do with reentry, such as probation and parole, identification and income, housing, employment, health, family, and legal matters.

And apropos reentry, here’s an interesting story from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, about a building in Harlem where single mothers and released inmates share facilities and lives; the community’s reaction is particularly interesting.

SF Public Defender: Justice Summit

On May 19 I attended the San Francisco Public Defender’s 2010 Justice Summit, at the SF Public Library. Jeff Adachi eloquently introduced a day of 3 panels, one Clara Foltz impersonator, a TV PSA, and free lunch. The PSA video was a startling, professionally-produced 15-second spot promoting the abstract concept of the public defender (“PD”).

The first panel, “Ordinary Injustice,” offered a scathing critique of every level of our criminal justice system. The title was taken from the book of the same name by Amy Bach, who spoke first and stole the show with firsthand stories of miscarriages of justice in rural courtrooms. She also noted that these problems affect everyone, not just those caught up in this system, because our tax dollars become the collateral consequences. Laurence Benner made the point that this injustice will inherently remain so long as local politicians are entrusted with funding our indigent defense system. Kenneth Tanaguchi, Fresno PD, mentioned thatjustice suffers in counties using contract defenders because of their innate conflict of interest: turning a profit will trump clients’ best interests when criminal defense services are auctioned. John Terzano, Justice Project ED, explained prosecutorial misconduct as a product of prosecutors’ discretion, lack of accountability, and entrenched culture. Sam Webby described his series of stories for the San Jose Mercury-News about the San Jose’s defendants going without representation at their first (and usually only) appearances, which led to a change in policy: now those courtrooms have lawyers in them everyday for the first time.

The second panel discussed PDs’ public relations problem: “Public pretender or public crusader?” Former prosecutor Jonathan Shapiro, now famous for The Practice and Boston Legal, started controversially by telling the audience of PDs to cut their ponytails, lose their earrings, and wear dark suits with white shirts and red ties. His main point was that PDs need more self-promotion, and collective national representation to educate the public on their purpose and worth. Jami Floyd of tv’s The Best Defense agreed that the media contributes to misperceptions of the PD’s role, because of the pro-prosecution bias in the assumption that defendants did something wrong (violating innocent-until-proven-guilty). A New Yorker, she argued that reforming draconian drug laws is the best issue to start with reshaping the PD’s image. Criminal defender Gerald Schwartzbach drew applause for, “You don’t fight crime by cutting social services,” and for, “Putting a black robe on a jackass doesn’t get you a judge,” and for, “The whole criminal defense bar, public and private, needs to circle the wagons” and unify to improve its reputation/image. Carol Dee Huneke of PD Revolution ( pointed out that even though emotionality usually favors victims, occasionally it works for defenders, and then they ought to call the media.

The third panel focused on prisoner re-entry services, from the mixed viewpoints of service providers, former prisoners, and advocates. It was pretty depressing, as highlighted by Eliza Hersh of the East Bay Community Law Center’s Clean Slate program: “There’s not really such a thing as a ‘clean slate’ in California.”

RI Leads Nation in Reducing Incarceration

Adding to our last post on the new Pew study, as a transplanted Rhode Islander I was thrilled to see Pew report that Rhode Island now leads the states in prison population reduction. As Bruce’s post reminds me, we never thought we’d see the day RI had fewer than 4,000 state prisoners. The RI General Assembly has recently eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, restoring judicial discretion. The Department of Corrections has increased sentence reductions for inmates’ good behavior.

Last night, the RI Senate Committee on Marijuana Prohibition released its final report, and concluded its business by releasing its final report and voting to recommend that the legislature decriminalize marijuana. This change would result in vast savings: in 2009 RI arrested 2,546 people for first-time marijuana possession. According to re-entry institute OpenDoors’s new report, in 2008 RI imprisoned 188 people and jailed 396–who spent a collective 2,366 days in jail.