December 16, 2011

Setting the record straight, Part 3: Release, Reentry, Reintegration: how the SAFE Parole Act is necessary for all three

SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT, a series of articles presented by the Coalition For Fair Criminal Justice Policies to explain and support the SAFE Parole Act.

Part 3: Release, Reentry, Reintegration: how the SAFE Parole Act is necessary for all three, by Larry White

The Importance of the Safe and Fair Evaluations (S.A.F.E.) Parole Act in Making Decisions about Release, Reentry, and Reintegration

Penal Law 1.05 states that in addition to punishment (retribution), deterrence, incapacitation and rehabilitation there is a fifth goal: "the promotion of their [incarcerated people's] successful and productive reentry and reintegration into society." [emphasis added]

The purpose of this article is to define reintegration, and to show how necessary the SAFE Parole Act is in achieving it.

Reentry and reintegration are commonly thought of as meaning the same thing, but they are, in actuality, very different:

Reentry is the process of returning to one's community and finding a way to get basic needs met - such as housing, food, employment - without resorting to criminal activities. Preparation for reentry starts in prison, with programs that prepare the person for life on the outside. In recent years outside agencies have gotten funding to meet reentry needs and continue to help a person remain at liberty without reverting to a life of crime. Parole needs to to create linkages for their clients with community agencies that can meet their subsistence needs, such as food, clothing, employment, medical care, and public assistance. Most community organizations offer case management to get a person back on their feet. Most don't go any further.

Reintegration is established when the formerly incarcerated person has developed social ties that help him or her continue to live at liberty without breaking the law. This person needs to be connected with a new environment which encourages and rewards legitimate behaviors and attitudes. The shorter the period of incarceration, the easier this task will be.

Part of this new involvement is with groups such as neighborhood associations, faith groups, men's groups, women's groups; groups where he or she is accepted as a contributing member to the positive goals of the group. Reintegration is the last stage in our criminal justice system, and therefore it must be the goal of all the stages that precede it, from arrest forward. It’s the capacity to live at liberty without disobeying the law. The community must get involved in nurturing legitimate lifestyles in the lives of the men and women returning from prison.

In NYS's criminal justice system the judicial system sets the punishment, which may include a period of incarceration. Prisons are responsible for providing deterrence and the tools for rehabilitation. The Parole Board's job is to assess a person's readiness to leave the incarceration stage behind and begin the process of reintegration.

This is where the SAFE Parole Act becomes necessary. Even with the recent revisions to the law, which mandate the use of a Transitional Accountability Plan and a Risk and Needs Assessment, the criminal justice system has not moved significantly closer to the fifth goal of reintegration. As long as the Parole Board can continue to base release decisions on the crime, which a person can never change, people who are truly ready to begin the process of reintegration will continue to be denied. The Safe and Fair Evaluations (S.A.F.E.) Parole Act doesn't leave it up to the Parole Board to voluntarily create procedures that would lead to fairer parole hearings, it includes them right in the bill.

Unlike the recently implemented changes, the SAFE Parole Act is based on an understanding that what a person does, what his or her attitudes and behaviors have become over the course of many years, are the most important indicators of readiness for reintegration, and thus for release from prison.

Most importantly, if the parole applicant’s attitude and/or behavior does not meet their standards, the Parole Board must spell out what he or she must do in order to be considered ready for release to parole supervision. Once those requirements have been met, the person must be released.

No one can ever know for sure that another person will commit a crime. But there are good indicators in the SAFE PAROLE ACT, and the Parole Board can do no better than to base their decision on them.

TAP and R&NA will continue to be used by Parole's Community Supervision once the person is back in society, and will extend until the person has reached the final goal of reintegration.

From: the Prison Action Network, in Building Bridges, December 2011