‘Employment is the key’
By Gary Blankenship
Helping inmates getting out of prison, especially after long-term sentences, is “not just a humanitarian issue, it’s a public safety issue. It’s a community health issue.”
Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, was speaking from personal experience during the offender reentry breakout session at the Bar’s recent Criminal Justice Summit. It was just over 20 years ago that he was homeless as he fought his way back from drug and alcohol abuse problems when then-County Attorney Susan Churuti gave him a temporary job.
“That is how I began to rebuild my life,” Rouson said. “Employment is the key.”
That theme recurred as other panelists talked about the importance of training and preparing inmates for post-prison life, removing barriers like withholding driver’s licenses for unpaid court fees, and breaking the cycle of poverty that led many into crime.
When he was president of the St. Petersburg NAACP from 2000 to 2005, Rouson said he would encounter young men on the street selling drugs, and when he pressed them, they said it was the only way they could support their families.
“It’s important that we all understand the power poverty has in this conversation,” said Kevin Gay, who runs Ready4Work, a prisoner reentry program in Jacksonville. “Those that come into this situation [prison] come from a situation of poverty. And it gets worse [after prison].”
Ready4Work offers employment in a nonprofit housing construction company it runs, housing assistance, three months of free bus passes, paying for a GED, health care, mentoring, and other services for newly released inmates.
Gay said there are misperceptions about ex-convicts and their willingness to work, attitudes he used to share.
“I assumed certain people didn’t want to work, didn’t want to take care of the kids, didn’t want to be engaged in their community,” he said. But his experience has shown that “our recidivism rate has consistently been about 50 percent less than the state and federal numbers. The services these folks need, once they have them, it’s a game changer.”
Retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Jenkins talked about a voluntary reentry program in the Middle District of Florida aimed at inmates deemed moderate to high risk of reoffending that includes required drug testing and behavioral counseling to deal with the “criminal thinking (that) boosts the risk of reoffending.”
All the participants have to come to court regularly, but they sit in the jury box, Jenkins said, and the emphasis is that they are participants, not defendants. Goals are set for employment, housing, family relationships, and other factors. Successfully completing the program removes a year of post-prison supervision.
“We do hold them accountable, there is sternness, there are sanctions that are available to us. If someone tests positive, they don’t bounce out of the program the first time,” Jenkins said. “Truthfulness is a premium . . . . Criminal thinking of course is not accepting responsibility, counseling will help with that. We’ll tell them, you’re going to take a step back, you’re going to screw up. Keep coming to court, tell your probation officer. We’ll work with you. We’ll do whatever we can to assist you.”
The goal, she said, is what one veteran, hardline prosecutor told the program participants: “I want you to be part of the community that I’m trying to protect.”
Tena Pate, the former head and member of the Florida Parole Commission, which aside from parole, has oversight of some discretional release programs, said that agency needs to do more to help inmates finishing long sentences have a successful post-prison life. Currently, the commission begins “looking” at long-term offenders 180 days before their release and that’s “insufficient to start changing behaviors,” she said.
For a while, the commission had a pilot program to begin working with inmates two to three years before their release and that had some success, but that program ended. There’s also no incentive for offenders to use a reentry program while they’re finishing the end of a mandatory sentence with no probation and “where offenders are absolutely coming out whether or not they have prepared themselves for release.”
“If we haven’t prepared the offenders for release, then that’s not doing anything for public safety,” Pate said. “It really requires innovative thinking.”
John Koufas has the perspective of looking at reentry programs as a former inmate. He noted he argued a case before the New Jersey Supreme Court while out on bail on a charge of causing an injury while driving drunk — a charge that eventually resulted in a prison sentence.
He served 17 months of a six-year sentence and when he got out, he began working on reentry programs in New Jersey and is now the national reentry director for the Washington, D.C.-based Right on Crime.
Issues Koufas sees includes inability of those released to pay fees and fines, which sometimes prevents them from getting driver’s licenses and finding employment, and sometimes gets them returned to prison. Some governments count on that revenue, he said, with New Jersey using it to repay bond debt and Texas to fund hospitals.
Many released inmates also have trouble with documentation, not having ready access to birth certificates (half of those released in Florida were born elsewhere), Social Security cards, and other paperwork.
“We were putting returning citizens into [union] apprentice programs . . . and they went into the middle class where they had never been,” Koufas said.
In response to questions, several of the panelists said employment is critical. “It’s employment, which also impacts housing and homelessness, which is a huge predictor of future behavior,” Pate said.
Gay said simple access to services for inmates nearing the end of their incarceration would be a major step.
“I firmly believe everything I’ve seen over the last six to seven years, it’s been incredible to embed these services into the facilities,” he said.
Fifteenth Circuit Public Defender Cary Haughwout, who moderated the discussion observed, “We have community service providers who will be more than willing to set up mentoring and training programs, but they’re not allowed inside the walls.”