“Divine mercy reminds us that prisons are an indication of the kind of society we are,” Pope Francis said earlier this year from inside a prison in Juarez, Mexico. “We have already lost many decades thinking and believing that everything will be resolved by isolating, separating, incarcerating and ridding ourselves of problems, believing that these policies really solve problems.”
By this logic, it might be hard for Francis to view America as the “Land of the Free” considering it houses 25 percent of the world’s prison population, despite being home to only 5 percent of the people on Earth.
In 2015, when Francis addressed inmates at a prison while visiting Philadelphia, he spoke to the ailments of a society that struggles to lend forgiveness. “It is painful when we see prison systems which are not concerned to care for wounds, to soothe pain, to offer new possibilities,” he said. “It is painful when we see people who think that only others need to be cleansed, purified, and do not recognize that their weariness, pain and wounds are also the weariness, pain and wounds of society.”
Moral objections aside, the reality is that 98 percent of people who commit felonies in the United States will eventually be released, according the United States Department of Justice (DOJ). With their judicially appointed debt to society paid off, ex-offenders are dropped back into the job market — often with no new skills or references — where their identity as a convicted felon often confronts them in the form of a question on nearly every application they pick up: “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”
For these men and women, their felony is a scarlet letter “F,” a new mark they must live with for the rest of their lives. It’s also a visible symptom of a much larger issue: Is the current system of corrections and criminal justice set up in a way that reduces recidivism and rehabilitates people who break the law? The numbers suggest that the meteoric rise in prison populations and recidivism in the United States can be attributed to a lack of rehabilitation opportunities currently being offered to those locked in the criminal justice system.
“Reentry doesn’t start with the $10 they give you on the way out the door,” an ex-offender, who wished to remain anonymous, said at a recent equal opportunity employment discussion at the Birmingham Museum of Art. “Unfortunately, that’s the way the system is right now. People go in with no skills. Years later they’re let out with no more skills than when they went in. Only now they [have] a prior conviction following them around when they go apply for a job.”
For many the cycle of crime continues because they are unable to secure steady employment.
A study conducted from 2005 to 2010 by the DOJ found that out of 404,638 state prisoners released in 30 states in 2005, 67.8 percent were arrested again within three years. Within five years, 76.6 percent had been arrested again.
The study also found that within five years of release, 82.1 percent of property offenders were arrested for a new crime, compared to 76.9 percent of drug offenders, 73.6 percent of public order offenders (often described as “victimless” crimes, e.g. drug possession offenses), and 71.3 percent of violent offenders. Of all offenders, 41.3 percent had 10 or more arrests on their record prior to release, which accounts for the largest contingent in the study; 31.1 percent had between five and nine prior arrests.
In Alabama — which, at 861 people incarcerated per 100,000, is one of 13 states that has an incarceration rate higher than any other country in the world, according to the Prison Policy Initiative — the recidivism rate has stayed around 35 percent since the 1990s. In 2015, 12,240 Alabamians were released from prison.
For the fiscal year 2015, roughly $399.8 million from the Alabama General Fund Budget went toward corrections, which accounted for 20 percent of the budget. That number is up from $197.4 million in 2002 — 15 percent of the state’s budget.
On a federal level the numbers are considerably lower. A study conducted by the United States Sentencing Commission found that out of the 25,431 offenders who were released from 2005 to 2013, 49.3 percent were rearrested for a new crime or for violating a condition of supervision; 31.7 percent of offenders were reconvicted; 24.6 percent were reincarcerated during the study period. The study also found that the majority of those who committed a crime did so within the first two years of the eight-year study and the median time to rearrest was 21 months.
In the federal northern district of Alabama, where Birmingham is located, roughly 6,000 federal inmates will be released this year, according the the U.S. Attorney’s office.
There are many factors that contribute to recidivism: access to education, poverty, family relations, race and gender. Those who have been released from prison and have managed to stay out, believe there is still plenty of work that can be done in order to better prepare ex-offenders for life on the outside.
Martha Shearer was arrested September 1, 1990. While serving a federal sentence of five years and three months for possession of a controlled substance and use of a public facility (using a post office to receive a controlled substance), Shearer got her GED and enrolled in several college courses that were offered — all after she gave birth to her second son, a few months after her conviction. As one might imagine, Shearer said it was a “very trying time” in her life. “But when I enrolled in those classes and started trying to better myself, it increased my self esteem tremendously and showed me I could do more than what I did before I got in,” she said.
Shearer didn’t stop there. After her release, she got her associate degree from Lawson State Community College; then her bachelor’s degree in social work from Miles College; then her master’s degree at the University of Georgia. “I’ve been pursuing my education so I could prove I was worthy of being hired. But that still hasn’t been enough,” Shearer said, explaining that even 20 years and four college degrees later, her prior conviction still haunts her professional life. The felony is more like a tattoo in that way, she said: it doesn’t wash off.
“I did get a job and purchase a home and raise three boys by myself and did everything I needed to do,” Shearer said. “I’ve been able to maintain decent employment. But as I progressed in my education it was difficult to get jobs I knew I was qualified for.”
Therein lies a paradox for ex-offenders. The more they choose to further their education after release, the greater the likelihood is that the higher-paying job opportunities they seek will have issues with hiring someone with a felony record.
Eventually, Shearer got a job working as a caseworker for the Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity. “I had been working there two and a half years and I had never had a complaint,” Shearer recalled. “Because of the type of job it was, [Alabama Department of Human Resources] did a background check. The initial application that I had filled out asked if I had been convicted of a felony in the last seven years so I could say no.”
For unknown reasons, Shearer said DHR did not run a background check on her until she had been working at the JCCEO for two and a half years. “Once they did that I was fired,” Shearer said.
She explained how it’s not just the ex-offenders who are affected by situations like this. Entire households are disrupted. Her eldest son, for instance, is currently serving a five-year sentence. The judge sent him to a facility in Kentucky so that he could enroll in the HVAC program they offered. However, when he arrived he was told he had to pay off several fines before he would be able to enroll. Without a way to make money, everything that Shearer sent him went toward those fines.
When it was finally paid off, Shearer said that she was told there was not enough time left on his sentence for him to participate.
“Now you got a person who’s been gone for five years and he is coming home with no new skills and nothing to show for it,” Shearer said. For her, there are a few “common sense” solutions to helping reduce recidivism. “[For] every sentence over six months the person should be required to get a GED if they don’t have one. Classes should be a requirement,” Shearer said. “Also, I want to get ‘ever’ taken off the applications when they ask if you’ve ‘ever been convicted of a felony.’ Make it 10 years or seven years. It shouldn’t be ‘ever.’”
Even though Shearer’s home state of California informed her that her record could be expunged, Alabama, where she lives now, has denied her request to do so on multiple occasions.
“It’s in all our interests…”
Last week a tall man with a heavy Massachusetts accent took the stage at the Birmingham Museum of Art. His name was Mark Holden, and he is the senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries, a multi-billion dollar company. Holden laid out an argument as to why a “broken criminal justice system” is bad for everyone, not just those who will be judged “by their worst day for the rest of their lives.” It takes a great deal of humility to realize “we will all falter,” Holden said.
“Whether you believe that from a moral perspective, it doesn’t really matter to me. It’s in all our interests that people come out better than when they went in and that they have something meaningful to go back to. That’s why we became involved in reentry reform,” Holden said to an auditorium packed with a diverse crowd.
Holden said that police officers are being asked to do too much in communities. “Right now we’re using our criminal justice system for purposes it was never designed to address,” he said. “For instance, it’s not set up to deal with a public health crisis like drug addiction or mental health issues or homelessness or school truancy and ultimately poverty.”
The incidents that have spilled into the news cycle in recent weeks — Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Philando Castile in Minneapolis, the officers killed in Dallas — have sparked national debate about the role of community policing, especially in poor and largely African-American neighborhoods afflicted by high levels of crime.
The visibly exhausted Dallas Police Chief David Brown addressed this the day after five of his men were killed while trying to maintain a peaceful protest. “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” Brown said. “We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. … Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. … That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”
High levels of recidivism can’t be merely attributed to “people who just want to break the law” Holden explained. But rather it reflects inadequate education in poor communities, a “failed War on Drugs” as well as law enforcement agencies being used as revenue generators by enforcing “so many laws that aren’t criminal behaviors.”
In 1790 there were three federal criminal laws. In 1900 these laws had expanded to several dozen. By the time the War on Drugs started in the early 1980s, there were 3,000 federal criminal laws. Now, Holden said, there are estimated to be somewhere between 4,500 to 6,000.
“I say estimated because no one can tabulate them,” he said. “As a result of choosing to criminalize some of these things, we have about 2 million people in prison,” he added, acknowledging that there are plenty of criminal elements involved with the drug trade and that there are, of course, people who deserve to be in prison. But what about the human cost associated with their release?
By Holden’s estimate, if incarceration rates had not gone up 500 percent as they have since 1980, poverty in the United States would have dropped by about 20 percent. “Our criminal justice system is literally impoverishing our society. But the good news is that people are starting to recognize that, left, center and right,” Holden said.
While reform may be moving at a glacial pace, as Holden put it, there are signs that politicians on both sides of the aisle are beginning to make strides toward changing the system. On July 22, President Obama signed into law the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, a piece of legislation aimed at providing assistance — that doesn’t include incarceration — for people struggling with drug addiction.
“My administration has been doing everything we can to increase access to treatment, and I’m going to continue fighting to secure the funding families desperately need,” Obama said in a statement. “In recent days, the law enforcement community, advocates, physicians and elected officials from both sides of the aisle have also joined in this call. Now, it’s up to Republicans to finish the job and provide adequate funding to deal with this public health crisis. That’s what the American people deserve.”
Beyond that, there is a bill awaiting approval in Congress, the Recidivism and Risk-Reduction Act, which could potentially be passed later this year. The bill will help “develop a Post-Sentencing Risk and Needs Assessment System; make recommendations regarding recidivism reduction programs and productive activities (programs); conduct ongoing research and data analysis on the best practices relating to the use of offender risk and needs assessment tools, the best available tools, the most effective and efficient uses of such tools, and the most effective programs for prisoners classified at different recidivism risk levels and for addressing the specific needs of prisoners.”
Earlier this year, Birmingham Mayor William Bell and the city council passed a local initiative that “banned the box” on applications for jobs with the city. Bell said this falls in the same vein as his recent push to reduce crime throughout the city.
“This allows us to at least give someone the opportunity to apply for a job so we can evaluate what their skill sets may or may not be as it pertains to that particular job,” Bell said over the phone last week. “It’s part of an initiative the federal government has been pushing along with private sector advocates due to the shortage of talented people with skills.
“We have to break the cycle. It can’t just be a revolving door of people going to prison, then getting out and not being able to find a job, so they go back to getting involved with illegal activities just in order to survive,” Bell said.
Currently only jobs with the city are affected by “ban the box,” but the mayor said he hopes to get the private sector involved with this initiative as well. On Thursday July 21, Bell urged those in the business community to take the “Fair Chance Business Pledge,” which states that “The most important contribution businesses can make to this effort is to give a fair chance to all applicants, to ensure that information regarding an applicant’s criminal record is considered in proper context and to engage in hiring practices that do not unnecessarily place jobs out of reach for those with criminal records.”
Originally from Jacksonville, Florida, Tyrone King was released in 2008 without condition, meaning no probation or parole, after serving a four year and nine month sentence for “burglary of a conveyance” — he did not describe the specifics of the crime. Upon his release, King relocated to Birmingham where he had some extended family. Being fresh out of prison in a city he had never been before presented its own set of challenges, King said.
“I did a lot of introspective thinking and coupled with prayer and meditation to decide in what ways I needed to change to be a more productive member of society,” King said, seated on a couch at Weld’s office. “With those changes in mind I started looking at the inner man. I started seeing a pattern. If I wasn’t working and I didn’t have family connections I would start to gravitate back toward doing temporary services and or selling discounted merchandise — selling stuff door-to-door. That first 30 days, coming to a new city, getting identification, dealing with family issues, that was the hardest.”
King worked a lot of temp jobs. They would be on 90-day probation periods in which he would either be hired, or sent on his way. As King described the situation, he recalled how men he thought he had “outworked” would get the call to come on full-time. He was frustrated because he was not being rejected based on his merits, but rather the fact he was an ex-offender. This situation played out repeatedly, he said.
Eventually he was able to land a full-time job with The Birmingham News. He had studied and learned printing back in Florida and had previously worked for the Orlando Sentinel and the Florida Times-Union.
“They had a job fair in the evening,” King said. “I had an interview with a woman. Told her I had plenty of experience in printing and I gave her my references. That was the first company I’d ever applied for that didn’t have the question. Went through a six-page application. I looked over it several times and said, ‘Wait a minute, they don’t have the question.’ I knew I had the job. This is my job and where I am supposed to be.”
King said, “For the ex-offender being able to share their work experiences and references first, being able to sit down with someone who is seeing what you’ve done, after they’ve actually read your application… It’s everything. But [they] saw me for my qualifications.”
However, for every success story, King said somberly, there are countless people who can’t break out of the cycle.
The Dannon Project
In 1999, Fox 6 reporter Jeh Jeh Pruitt’s younger brother was killed by someone who had recently been released from prison for a nonviolent offense. Pruitt believed that if that person had a better support system, his brother would not have been killed. This led him to start the Dannon Project, named after his brother, later that same year.
Today the Dannon Project, which is based in downtown Birmingham, serves more than 700 ex-offenders and helps them with various aspects of reentry. Erica Hazewood, a senior case manager, said that among the important components of their service is helping ex-offenders with career training and obtaining proper identification.
“I think that when people who come out of incarceration and don’t have a support system, then there is a high chance of them recidivating,” she said. “If they feel supported, that changes everything. We work with our participants and try to keep them active and motivated,” Hazewood said.
“I think it’s a societal issue,” Hazewood continued. “When women and men get out and they’re trying to establish themselves, a lot of places won’t hire them because of their past. Once you serve your time, everyone should be given a second chance. If these people keep getting denied because of their past, then that is a failure for all of us.”
More than just prosecutors
U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama Joyce Vance agrees that recidivism is a societal issue. Five years ago she introduced the interagency reentry program into her office. As a prosecutor, this was an innovative new way to look at criminality, to say the least.
“In theory, the concept is really very clear and easy to grasp,” Vance said. “But we have to be honest and say that in practice [hiring ex-offenders] makes some people very nervous… I always have to say when I discuss reentry, as a career prosecutor I am deeply committed to the idea of accountability, to the idea that those who commit crimes should be held accountable in our legal system and serve whatever sentence a judge imposes on them after convicted by a jury. But none of us should be judged for the rest of our lives by the worst decision we’ve ever made.”
Unfortunately, that is not what is happening today, Vance said. “In Birmingham we have a real opportunity to lead. We have some history and some distance from that history and a special understanding of what that means…Birmingham is the first city in Alabama to adopt the ban the box practices. I think the business community has a singular opportunity to move forward,” Vance said.
Jeremy Sherer, the reentry coordinator with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said that when he took the job five years ago, it wasn’t a required position in the federal system. Now, he said, every U.S. Attorney’s Office must have a reentry coordinator because of the success and emphasis on reducing recidivism.
For Sherer, the evidence that the current system is failing is made evident by the fact that crime, overall, is decreasing, while prison populations have continued to rise at an alarming rate.
“Historically I don’t think recidivism is something that people really worried about,” Sherer said. “It only became of significance to society and our governmental institutions when the number of recidivists became so much it started putting the burden on funding. It is cheaper to ‘fix’ someone than to perpetually incarcerate someone.”
Annually, it costs on average $17,406 to incarcerate someone. “This national conversation about criminal justice reform is about so much more than incarcerating people we’re afraid of, people we’re mad at,” Sherer said. “It’s about social justice, it’s about libertarian small government philosophy. It’s about fiscal conservatism. If we lock someone up and release them without anything they need and without giving them a chance to better themselves, then who is really to blame?”