“The choice is clear: We can no longer afford to simply lock people up. It is time for California and its counties to fix our broken criminal justice system and to take a new approach to keeping our communities safe.” ~A recent ACLU report, Public Safety Realignment: California at the Crossroads.
Alameda County faces an historic opportunity with realignment, but if it is not done well, it could have a limited impact on the people most affected by incarceration. Michael Shaw, the director of the Office of Urban Male Health at Alameda County’s Public Health Department said, “It is good that we can now work with offenders on a local level as huge barriers existed when family members were hours away.”
But, Shaw cautions, “unless we look at the cumulative impact of incarceration on our most vulnerable communities, we will still be addressing only part of the problem.
“We spend millions of public dollars in some of the same blocks of this county,” he says. “A woman in East Oakland might be on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, have a child in the foster care system, a partner or who is incarcerated and she receives health care and mental health from our behavioral health.
“Major shifts in the county’s leadership have made a difference, but we also need to change the culture of those institutions. These systems need to coordinate our approaches to this family so we can make a difference that is sustainable and helps this family change over time, not just in an emergency.”
Sometimes the system works against the formerly incarcerated and their families, said Shaw.
“Many men on probation have orders to support their children. If Child Protective Services finds out that they are working, they can garnish their wages, making it very difficult for them to live on what they make. So they often quit their job, which pushes men away from their families and back towards the streets. This needs to change.”
Dozens of representatives from Alameda County’s Probation and the Sheriff departments, service providers at re-entry agencies and many former inmates echoed the need for the county to focus on the following in order to help Alameda County’s former inmates get out and stay out:
- Jobs, jobs and more jobs – The private sector needs to be more involved in training and work force development so that former inmates have a chance of becoming productive citizens of Oakland.
- Substance abuse treatment – More short- and long-term residential treatment programs that tackle addictions including to the criminal lifestyle itself.
- Transitional clean and sober housing – Which supports former inmates people as they make gradual changes.
- Training – For child welfare workers, police, probation officers and educators on the impact on children and families when a parent is incarcerated.
- Family re-integration work – To help all family members establish healthy connections post incarceration.
- Development of coordinated data systems – In the sheriff’s and probation departments that follow all released inmates and target evidenced based interventions based on that unique individual’s history.
- Track the interventions – That formerly incarcerated receive and analyze what does and does not work to reduce recidivism.
- Former inmates need to be trained as peer mentors, speakers and staff – In re-entry programs so they can give back to the community.
- Schools and school districts – Need to figure out how to give kids the individual attention they need to thrive and which will help them feel engaged in school. Schools also need to end the use of suspensions for routine discipline and help parents realize the importance of getting their kids to school.
It is important to note that the job of realignment does not reside only within the sheriffs or the probation departments. A report from the University of California, Berkeley, Law School entitled, “Realignment: A Bold New Era in California Corrections” states, “Many members of the locality must step up and accept their responsibility and roles to help offenders to turn their lives around and to promote safer communities for everyone.”
Doris Mangrum, the producer of the movie “Stains: Changing Lives After Incarceration” couldn’t agree more.
“In many disadvantaged communities like Oakland, we see a reduction of crime and new efforts at revitalization, but this has to be an effort by all of us,” Mangrum said. “This can’t be done by law enforcement alone; it can’t be done only by public organizations or people of faith. We all have to pitch in. Whether it is mentoring a youth or helping with Get on the Bus or contributing to Project What! the larger community needs to pitch in.”
“Crime doesn’t ever happen in a vacuum,” said Carol Burton, executive director of Centerforce – a statewide agency serving the incarcerated and their families. “Crime is related to all of the other things that don’t go well in poor communities of color when they have substandard schools, when they are traumatized by living in violent communities and in areas where there are chronic health issues.
“The best way to reduce crime is to give families and communities what they need to become strong, productive and viable member of their communities.”