Envisioning a First Chance Society
by Jeff Grant, JD, M Div
& Sarah Diamond, PhD
“Supporting a Second Chance Society
with First Chance Opportunities”
|Envisioning a First Chance Society|
Last fall, the Directors of Family ReEntry viewed a TED Talk by Dan Pallotta titled, “The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong.” In his talk, Pallotta discussed social innovation and social entrepreneurship, and called upon the nonprofit community to ask ourselves the question, How Do We Change the World?
How Do We Change the World? It was, and is, a daunting challenge.
If we believe in a vision imagined by Buckminister Fuller as hopeful as a “world that works for everyone,” we must put important questions on the table, like: What is our great vision of criminal justice reform here in Connecticut and across the country? Where are we now? How did we get here? What do we want to achieve? How do we achieve it? What partners do we need in the conversation?
We set out to tackle this head-on. Together with colleagues and some of the best and most innovative consultants in the country (notably, our friend and my co-author Sarah Diamond, PhD), we envisioned a changed world where we solve the “criminal justice problem” by devoting our attention and resources to healing families and communities. Our goal is to provide first chance opportunities to at-risk people so that their entry into the criminal justice system is not likely or inevitable. Or, if they are already in the system, to provide them with the first chance they never received.
That is, we intend to change the world by serving as conveners of stakeholders in this important conversation, and disruptors of the broken criminal justice status quo.
A First Chance Society: Supporting a Second Chance Society with First Chance Opportunities
Nobody knows the failures of our criminal justice system better than the individuals and families impacted by incarceration and the community-based organizations which serve them. Without the voices of people who have been most impacted by the system, and an in-depth understanding and valuing of their humanity and life experiences, our reform efforts are likely to continue to fall short. Drawing upon our many years of providing critical services in mental health, domestic violence prevention and reentry for thousands of individuals and families each year, Family ReEntry introduces the concept of a First Chance Society to contribute to the dialogue in Connecticut and the country about reimagining our criminal justice system and towards building a shared vision for social change.
We whole-heartedly agree with and support Governor Malloy’s Second Chance Society goals of seeking long-term solutions to criminal justice reform that “invest in permanent improvement and reformation instead of permanent punishment.” However, we believe that this vision must be taken a step further to address the root causes of mass incarceration, especially with regards to the association between poverty, zip code, race/ethnicity, health disparities and who ends up behind bars. We wish to expand our vision for criminal justice reform by advocating for a First Chance Society, which provides genuine opportunities for those at risk of falling through the cracks and who are being left behind in our post-industrial, globalizing economy.
A First Chance Society is a society in which fewer people end up involved in a punitive criminal justice system in the first place. We are inspired by Pope Francis’ call to leaders to reach out to those who’ve been left out from the global economy and to, “Give them a voice, listen to their stories, learn from their experiences, understand their needs.”
What would a society look like in which every child and adult, no matter their family of origin, socio-economic background, or zip code had a chance to succeed and was provided the quality education, skills, resources and opportunities they needed to live a successful and fulfilling life? Can we transform our criminal justice system to be more aligned with first chances, or must the system itself be dismantled? What will this new eco-system for a First Chance Society look like?
Below are five intentionally thought-provoking statements to spur further community dialogue toward a society that not only embraces Second Chances, but also looks toward providing First Chance opportunities for the people of Connecticut and our nation as a whole.
Our Prisons have become Warehouses for the Poor
A 2015 report by the Prison Policy Initiative confirms the link between poverty and incarceration  in determining that, “in 2014 dollars, incarcerated people had a median annual income of $19,185 prior to their incarceration, which is 41% less than non-incarcerated people of similar ages.” In other words, the people who are in prison are largely concentrated at the lowest end of the U.S. income distribution. As the authors of this study note, policy reforms at the federal, state and local level can go a long way to removing barriers for people returning home from prison to go back to school, become gainfully employed, reunite with their families etc. “Reversing the decades-old policies that make it more difficult for people with criminal records to succeed may require political courage, but the options are plentiful and often straightforward.” However, these reforms are insufficient to address the conditions that lead to imprisonment for crime in the first place. “Our single-minded focus on imprisonment, has blinded us to the needs of entire communities.” As the authors conclude,
Permanently ending the era of mass incarceration will require reversing the decades of neglect that denied our most vulnerable communities access to good jobs, reliable transportation, safe housing, and good schools. Making these long-delayed investments in the basic building blocks of strong and stable communities will ensure that, once we turn the corner on mass incarceration, we never turn back.
Despite a System that is Broken, we must Find
Ways for People to become Whole
Quoting Dianne Jones, Director of Reentry for the City of Hartford, “If the system itself is broken, how can we expect people to become whole again?” Much like critiques of our health care system, our criminal justice system is heavily fragmented and siloed, resulting in poor continuity of care for those whom we serve and for their families. Individuals returning from prison tend to have complex, multi-dimensional needs. Their families too typically suffer collateral consequences from both the criminal behavior and challenges encountered in navigating and interfacing with the system itself. When agencies operate in silos to try to serve people returning from prison, the system becomes inefficient and costly, and people are less likely to succeed. Without their basic needs met and proper supports, many individuals end up falling back into old patterns that landed them in the system in the first place.
At Family Reentry, we understand that our ability to serve our clients and their families is directly proportional to the degree to which the various other services they depend on (e.g. housing, job training, employment, legal aid, etc.) are well-integrated and implemented as part of a comprehensive and timely reentry plan. Thus, we invite our community partners and stakeholders in the criminal justice system to join us in creating a better, more interdependent eco-system for individuals returning from prison (and their families), with the shared goal of ensuring that they and their families have all that they need to be successful.
Reentry Begins at the Time of a Person’s Arrest
A simple way to consider this statement is that the fewer people we arrest and detain or incarcerate as a society, the fewer people for whom we will then later need to provide reentry services. So one way to reduce mass incarceration is to explore whether or not our legal sanctions are proportional to the harm done by the crime and are necessary to keep others safe. Focusing on the time of arrest also calls to mind efforts to address unconscious bias and other factors contributing to police making false arrests. With years of emphasis on making sure we provide culturally and linguistically competent services to everyone in our catchment area and in supporting efforts to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in our criminal justice system, Family ReEntry encourages dialogue around what each of us can do to make sure that our justice system is doling out justice equitably.
Another dimension to this statement has to do with the question of when a person’s process of rehabilitation begins? In a hospital, for example, discharge planning starts on the day of a person’s admission.
For some this process could begin when they first start to feel guilt or regret for their crime. Feeling the weight of the law at the time of arrest may also spur people to start to rethink their past actions and consider its consequences. For those involved in patterns of criminal behavior, the process of rehabilitation involves learning new ways of thinking and skills to break these patterns. Family ReEntry has a strong track record of providing effective preventive services via youth mentoring and domestic violence prevention for individuals in diversion or court-mandated programs. We invite dialogue regarding creative ways we as a community can work to elevate the consciousness of a person such that they are less likely to break the law, and to cause harm to others. And we support efforts to explore the role of restorative justice in our criminal justice system or other methods of addressing crime used in other countries that support rehabilitation over punishment.
Hurt People, Hurt People
Many people who commit violent crimes or who have substance abuse disorders have experienced some sort of family violence, addiction and trauma in their own lives, often as children. The criminal justice system itself adds another layer of trauma, as people who have been incarcerated know all too well. Then the stigma and barriers to rebuilding their lives, such as accumulated child support payments and court fines, can compound people’s suffering even after they have served their time. Thus, part of the solution to reducing crime must rest with equipping people with the tools and support they need to heal from traumatic experiences and also making sure our system of justice and society becomes more humane.
From years of providing mental health services for people with high rates of trauma, Family ReEntry knows that healing the trauma of a person who has been incarcerated and involving his or/her family members in the process is not just something that can be accomplished by prescribing a pill or offering only a brief intervention, though these may help some. Healing can take many years and most people need ongoing social support in order to recover from cumulative traumas and learn healthy coping mechanisms required to lead healthy and productive lives. At Family ReEntry we are interested in exploring ways that we as a society can better support the process of healing that must take place in individuals and families, especially in our neighborhoods with the highest rates of crime. How can we as a society invest in preventing people from being hurt, from healing people who are hurt, and making our systems more trauma-informed? What diverse healing practices and safe spaces already exist in our communities and what funds can be catalyzed to grow them?
Let us Create a First Chance Society Movement
We invite everyone to join us in building a movement in support of a second chance society, with first chance opportunities. Please let your voices be heard by sharing with us your thoughts on how best to give everyone in society first chances so as to make our communities safer, healthier, and more peaceful: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeff Grant, JD, M Div, Executive Director, Family ReEntry, Inc.
Sarah Diamond, PhD, Founder, Diamond Research Consulting, LLC
|Envisioning a First Chance Society|