Category Archives: reentry

Judging Change

I spent eight hours with our state’s parole board yesterday.  I sat in on two “Murder Review” hearings, the stated purpose of which is to:  “determine whether or not the inmate is likely to be rehabilitated within a reasonable period of time so that the offender’s sentence may be converted to life with the possibility of parole, post-prison supervision, or work release.” 

The individuals in both of these cases were charged with aggravated murder; for both of them the question was whether they could prove themselves “rehabilitatable” so that they might have the possibility of parole at a future date.  One has at least 9 more years to serve on the mandatory part of his sentence before he can even be considered for release; the other is nearly 70 years old and is hoping for a chance to re-connect with family on the outside rather than die in prison.

The circumstance of the cases were quite different, and so were the hearings.  I’ll focus on the first, though, because it raises some difficult moral, ethical, and behavioral questions.  The first man presented over 100 pages of records, proof, and testimony that he has worked hard in his 20-years in prison to change and grow.  He has “programmed” persistently and thoroughly, participating in many educational and cognitive courses and experiences over the years.  His crime was a truly horrifying case of domestic violence – there really is no excuse for that crime and no making up for it, and the man acknowledges that.  Members of the victim’s family came to testify at the hearing, and their grief and pain was readily apparent.  They fear his possible release 10 or more years in the future, and they hope that he will serve natural life in prison.   The district attorney who attended the hearing called this man “a monster” and also asked that he be found “not likely to be rehabilitated in a reasonable amount of time.”

I was very impressed with the members of the parole board.  They had clearly done their homework in preparing for the hearings, and they patiently listened to testimony and took notes for the 8+ hours of these hearings, not even taking a break for lunch.  After the testimony of the inmates and their attorneys, they asked careful, thoughtful, and very probing questions, pushing the inmates to look deeper within themselves to answer the difficult questions.  Being a member of the parole board must be a thankless job – I doubt they get much credit for giving second (or third, or fourth) chances, but they undoubtedly face a great deal of public scrutiny and criticism should a release decision turn out badly.

The decisions will come later after the parole board has time to review and reflect on the evidence presented.  But here is the question: how can and should we judge change?  Even if an inmate has turned his life around in prison, does he deserve another chance at life in the community?  He can’t change the circumstances of his crime, but if he really has changed himself, is that enough?  Should it be?  How much weight should the victims’ fear, grief, and pain hold in parole decisions?  Can we ever really know if an inmate is “rehabilitated” enough or if he is just a master manipulator as the victims and prosecutors believe and claim?  Is it worth the risk to grant even the possibility of parole?

Big questions.  I don’t have any clear answers at this point, but I definitely came away from the hearings with a lot to think about…

More on those bridges…

For more on sex offender laws and their unintended consequences, see the lead article in the Economist* this week. A nice analysis for the uninitiated and it makes a clear argument about how the breadth of these laws make us less safe — even better, they mention the work of our very own Chris Uggen.

*I reluctantly bought the Economist only because Contexts is unavailable at the airport.

puts my trust in god and man

today’s “modern love” column in the new york times is written by a former inmate who, by his own admission, had “eight felonies, and at least twice that many misdemeanors…(had) been to prison five times, all for nonviolent drug and drug-related offenses.”  while the column is about the development of a particular relationship, what i found interesting was the author’s discussion of trying to build any kind of romantic relationship in light of his rocky past.  matthew parker writes:

When I got out of prison in 2002, I was narcotics-free for the first time since I was a teenager, and achingly lonely. Yet I had never had a normal relationship, and I was clueless about how to get myself into one. My 11 years of forced celibacy in prison and decades of drug use had left me inept when it came to women. I sometimes had junkie girlfriends, but junkies rarely find love because their love is the narcotic. Everything else is secondary.

I experimented with various forms of dating, including online, but remained lonesome because most of the women I managed to meet could not come to terms with my past.

this struck me as a piece of the reentry puzzle that may deserve more attention.  i don’t know what the answer is, but i can well imagine the frustration of trying to build relationships after a long incarceration.  if inmates who complete their sentences have “paid” for their crimes, do they deserve a second (or third, or fourth) chance at life and love?  would you be okay with your sister or daughter — or brother or son — dating a former felon?

prison reentry in the boston review

bruce western offers a fine piece in the new boston review — a characteristically thoughtful analysis of mass incarceration, nicely presented for non-experts. bruce argues that the failure of the great experiment in mass incarceration is rooted in three fallacies of the tough-on-crime perspective:

1. the fallacy of us and them.
2. the fallacy of personal defect.
3. the myth of the free market.

the argument, and the article, is well worth a read, as are the review’s other contributions: no further harm by mary katzenstein and mary lyndon shanley, and guarded hope by robert perkinson.

senate passes second chance act of 2007

via the sentencing project:

The Senate passed the Second Chance Act of 2007 late Tuesday, which will ease the re-entry process for individuals leaving prison by providing funding for prisoner mentoring programs, job training and rehabilitative treatment. The legislation, introduced in the Senate by Sens. Joseph Biden (D-DE), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Sam Brownback (R-KS), now awaits approval by President Bush – who in his 2004 State of the Union address advocated for a $300 million Prisoner Re-entry Initiative.
The legislation was passed by a voice vote after the Senate adopted a concurrent resolution, H Con Res 270, which included minor changes to the measure. The U.S. House of Representatives voted 347 to 62 to pass the Second Chance Act of 2007 in November.
The Second Chance Act will help provide necessary services to the nearly 700,000 people leaving prison each year by increasing funding designed to protect public safety and reduce recidivism rates. The bill’s provisions authorize $362 million to expand assistance for people currently incarcerated, those returning to their communities after incarceration, and children with parents in prison. The services to be funded under the bill include:

*mentoring programs for adults and juveniles leaving prison;
*drug treatment during and after incarceration, including family-based treatment for incarcerated parents;
*education and job training in prison;
*alternatives to incarceration for parents convicted of non-violent drug offenses;
*supportive programming for children of incarcerated parents; and early release for certain elderly prisoners convicted of non-violent offenses.

The reform bill was widely supported by civil rights, criminal Justice, law enforcement and religious organizations and had broad bipartisan support in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

c-love

courtney love has successfully completed rehab and probation and is now officially off-paper. judge rand rubin terminated ms. love’s probation early when she finished a substance abuse treatment program. according to reuters, ms. love entered guilty pleas in 2004 and 2005 to some [silly] drug charges and pleaded no contest to [scary] assault charges in 2005:

Love was accused of dousing King with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label scotch, throwing a lit candle at her head and pinching her breast. The attack came after Love found King sleeping on a couch at the home of Love’s ex-boyfriend.

of course, this is no isolated incident. ms. love has had more than her share of legal problems over the years: juvenile and adult, criminal and civil, property and violent, trumped-up and let-off-easy. maybe i’ve got a soft spot for 42-year-olds named c-love, but i’m hoping this was her last pass through the criminal Justice system.