Prisoner’s Dilemma

Posted on 01. Sep, 2008 by in Features

For the last four decades, controversies over crime, punishment, and rehabilitation have contributed to the breakdown of urban America and the outcome of elections. For the last 14 years, John DeStefano has been New Haven’s revitalizing mayor, fighting a slow battle to turn the city around. And for the last six months, he has tried to tackle one of the most acrimonious crime and punishment controversies of them all: prisoner re-entry. On February 26, the morning after three New Haven shootings left one man dead and two police officers in critical condition, DeStefano called a press conference and placed the blame squarely on Governor Jodi Rell, citing her refusal to develop a meaningful prison re-entry program for ex-convicts. All three shooters had criminal records, DeStefano charged, and all had fallen through the cracks of a system with virtually no state-funded support for people released from prison. These convicts, the allegation continued, were only the tip of the iceberg. DeStefano accused Rell, to whom he had lost a bid for governor in 2006, of “dumping” between 25 and thirty prisoners released from state prison in New Haven each week. Without a structured re-entry program or adequate social services, these prisoners seemed destined to commit further violent crime.

After witnessing the bitter partisan battle over New Haven’s ex-convict population, one New Haven administrator has a plan to evade existing political landmines and funding quandaries to provide released prisoners the support they need. This fall, Kica Matos, director of New Haven’s Community Services Administration (CSA), is launching an ambitious new prison re-entry initiative designed to fill the gap left by the relative indifference of statewide leadership. If successful, the New Haven Re-entry Initiative will become one of the first government programs in the country to unify city social services and community outreach resources, both governmental and non-governmental, in one comprehensive, city-wide resource network.

As Matos quietly released background information on her initiative, Rell engaged DeStefano’s accusations in a highly public feud that was the climax of what had been an eventful year for Connecticut’s criminal justice system. In August of 2007, months after progressives had won an extended battle to legally raise Connecticut’s minimum age for adult prosecution from 16 to 18, two parolees who had met at a Connecticut halfway house viciously murdered three members of the Petit family in suburban Cheshire, a town home to three of the state’s largest prisons. In response to weeks of national media attention and a public outcry by voters demanding tougher parole restrictions, Rell instituted a nearly six-month-long ban on parole hearings for prisoners convicted of violent felonies. This measure provoked outrage and protests from Connecticut communities, New Haven among them, angered by the delayed return of incarcerated loved ones.

In early February of 2008, Rell lifted her parole ban and instituted new guidelines for parole hearings. After DeStefano’s press conference weeks later, she struck back in a public letter released on March 1, accusing DeStefano of a “frankly shocking” lack of understanding of the criminal justice system. None of the three shooters that February night, Rell correctly pointed out, had been under the supervision of the DOC at the time of the shootings; they had been on probation under court supervision.  She also accused DeStefano of failing to recognize the “extraordinary assistance—almost entirely at Connecticut tax payer expense” that the state police had provided New Haven to combat crime. “If I were in an ironic frame of mind,” Rell continued, noting that New Haven accounted for 12 percent of Connecticut’s prison population, “perhaps I might complain about the city of New Haven ‘dumping’ its problems with drugs, violence, and other crimes on the state of Connecticut.” Though the governor and mayor later met with the Department of Corrections (DOC) commissioner, Theresa Lantz, to discuss their differences, the contentious “dumping” issue remained unresolved.

However ugly, Rell and DeStefano’s feud drew attention to the disturbing fact that Connecticut, a state with over 18,000 Connecticut citizens currently incarcerated and a recidivism rate for released offenders calculated by the DOC at 40 percent, lacks a comprehensive plan to smoothly transition released prisoners back into society. Many pinpoint this deficiency as a central cause of New Haven’s crime problem.

“What we found when we looked at the statistics,” Matos explains, “was that a lot of these crimes were being committed by folks with criminal records.” Her conclusions resulted from a year of researching the city’s crime and incarceration statistics, existing social services for released prisoners, and successful models for prison re-entry in other cities around the country. Diagnosing New Haven’s failings, Matos asserts that “there are definitely structural problems with the system. Right now, there seems to be a missing link between the DOC and the people trying to navigate the system.”

New Haven’s numbers on crime and recidivism—the propensity for ex-convicts to commit more crimes—reveal the uphill battle the city faces. According to the CSA, in 2007, 70 percent of New Haven’s homicide victims, 51 percent of its non-fatal shooting victims, and 80 percent of suspects for both crimes had criminal records. 70 percent of all people released from prison, according to the Connecticut DOC’s annual report on recidivism, are rearrested within a year. More than half of them will be reconvicted and a third re-incarcerated. Especially troubling for the city is that half of these ex-convicts live in only three of New Haven’s neighborhoods: The Hill, Fair Haven, and Newhallville.

“What people have to realize,” says Mike Lawlor, a Democratic state representative from East Haven, the Chair of the Connecticut House Judiciary Committee, and a long-time advocate for judicial reform, “is that it’s the guys that are getting out of prison that are causing a lot of these problems.”

According to both Lawlor and Matos, recidivism occurs so frequently because ex-felons have no way to meet their basic needs. “In a lot of these cases it’s not hard to figure out,” says Lawlor. “You need housing, services, you need supervision.” One obstacle for released prisoners seeking to meet these needs is a lack of legal rights to protect them from discrimination. People with criminal records are disqualified from public housing, a policy that often separates them from family and leaves them with nowhere to go. Connecticut, unlike some states, does not have laws explicitly banning discrimination based on criminal records, which makes it easier for employers to turn down ex-offenders looking for jobs.

“Jobs are a huge problem,” says Sally Joughin, a coordinator of People Against Injustice, a New Haven community group that advocates for Elm City residents affected by the criminal justice system. “Not only because someone spending a long time in prison may not have a marketable job skill or education, but also because there is discrimination against people who have been in prison.”

The prevalence of untreated mental health and substance abuse issues—15 percent of all people released from prison have a serious mental illness—often makes it harder for former criminals to find jobs. Many parole and probation officers, officially tasked with addressing these problems, are burdened with heavy case loads that do not allow them to effectively administer to parolees. Compounding these obstacles is the lack of a consolidated and accurate list of the few resources available to prisoners released in New Haven. “If folks come back into the community and don’t have options,” Matos summarizes, “it’s hard to make sure they don’t go out and relapse.”

Unlike Lawlor and DeStefano, who have prioritized increasing state aid and funding for existing programs, Matos’ initiative involves working at a local level to encourage cooperation and innovation among existing re-entry resource providers. Some of the initial changes slated to premier this fall are an accurate and updated guide to resources available to every prisoner upon release, increased coordination amongst court support services, and regular meetings among state, local, non-profit, and faith-based organizations working on re-entry issues.

Joughin emphasizes the need for streamlining re-entry service funding. “Should a well-funded state re-entry program be developed, just as there is a state incarceration system?” she asks. “Right now there are many different non-profits providing various kinds of re-entry programs and competing for state funding. There shouldn’t be a competition for funds. Every released prisoner should automatically be getting the services he or she needs.”

Some community activists are skeptical not only of governmental services, but also of non-profit efforts to ease re-entry. Barbara Fair, a long-time organizer with People Against Injustice who first got involved in criminal justice activism when her brother was incarcerated—in a prison system, she says, that “neither of us really understood”—insists that “the only thing that is ‘non-profit’ about most non-profits is the pay that direct service providers—the real workers—receive.” Fair sees the entire system, non-profits included, as fundamentally corrupt. “Incarceration is a huge business,” she says. “[It is] the fastest-growing, most recession-proof industry in America today, and it is so huge that stock investments are available. Because it is a huge business, there is no incentive to de-incarcerate because empty cells lead to loss on the stock market and loss in jobs for thousands who might otherwise be unemployed or unemployable.”

Matos is aware that many activists share Fair’s cynicism, but she remains optimistic about large-scale grassroots cooperation. “The overwhelming consensus from community-based organizations,” she explains, “is that the city does have a major role to play, and we want to bring everyone to the table.” Matos, along with Joughin and other community organizers, currently hopes to garner support for New Haven’s new “Ban the Box” campaign to officially remove questions about criminal history from preliminary job applications. “We think it would be better if that subject came up later in the interview process,” Matos says. Her pilot proposal for the Re-entry Initiative explains that the “Ban the Box” project would help inmates rejoin the workforce. This program would include outreach to local businesses to increase awareness of the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, a federal tax incentive for employers to hire ex-felons.

In focusing on the exchange of information, Matos has found an innovative solution to the biggest sticking point in the re-entry debate. While Lawlor, DeStefano, and Rell battle endlessly over funding—“Governor Rell just doesn’t want to fund these programs,” Lawlor complains, even though “the Department of Corrections ran $19 million over budget in 2007 and is expected to run $24 million over budget this year”—Matos emphasizes that many of the city’s initial programs will be “non-resource heavy.” By focusing on information, outreach, and streamlining, Matos has created a program that requires little funding.

But she has not given up hope for significant improvement in the degree of state-level support for New Haven inmates. In the past few years, both she and Lawlor are quick to note, the DOC has adopted a more enlightened view of prisoner re-entry. “They seem very much on board with working together,” Matos explains. “We’ve had some very productive discussions.”

Brian Garnett, a DOC spokesperson, emphasizes that, since 2003, when a new commissioner came on board, the Department has made significant improvements to encourage re-entry. “The old way of doing corrections,” Garnett explains, “was showing an offender the front door on their last day of incarceration and waving goodbye—that doesn’t work and it isn’t good for public safety.” He points out that since 2003, the DOC has doubled the number of halfway house beds in Connecticut to 1,200 and significantly stepped up re-entry preparation during incarceration. “From day one we are planning for releasing an offender back into society,” he says.

Both he and Lawlor also mention that Connecticut’s prison system is still “in a much better place” than those of many other states—it is one of only a handful of states, according to a recent, highly publicized Pew study of national incarceration trends, whose incarcerated population has not grown over the last three years. States like California and Florida face re-entry and recidivism crises of a much higher

Despite these promising steps, however, the DOC and Governor Rell remain locked in disagreement with New Haven reformers over the extent to which the present system is broken. While almost every state and local representative in New Haven insists that more re-entry funding is needed, Garnett avers that “Governor Rell’s support has been more than sufficient—we do not need any more money.” And while Garnett merely points out that Connecticut’s overall reconviction rate of 40 percent drops to 24 percent when prisoners are released under the close supervision of parole officers, Lawlor is actively pursuing funding to hire new parole officers so that existing officers can work more effectively.

Garnett also flatly denies DeStefano’s charge of state prisoner “dumping” in New Haven. “We are not dumping anybody anywhere,” he explains in language reminiscent of Rell’s March letter to DeStefano. “We are simply returning people to their homes. People want to go home after they are released and that is where we take them.” Though, in the summary of her pilot program, Matos included interviews with prisoners from around the state who were dropped in New Haven rather than their hometowns, Garnett classifies these accounts as “just inaccurate.”

The question of their origin aside, no one denies that ex-convicts are streaming into New Haven at a steady rate and that they can’t be helping the city’s already-epic battle with crime and violence. But while Matos continues to search for common ground between community groups and political opponents, the core controversy between reformers and the status quo remains.

“Both Democrats and Republicans familiar with the issue realize that you’re going to have to spend this money one way or another,” Lawlor explains. “It’s just a matter of whether you want to spend less now on re-entry, or more later on new prisons.”

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