A Sea Change, Rich and Strange

A Sea Change, Rich and Strange

The strong breeze ruffling the curtains of my office window today is a cool weather front coming in, according to the weatherman. A harbinger of the impending change of season. It seems an appropriate metaphor for something else I’ve been feeling lately.

For weeks now, I’ve been thoroughly steeped in criminal justice-related efforts (see partial list below). And for the first time, instead of feeling consumed and overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude and complexity of the problems, I feel . . . optimistic.

I’ve been trying to figure out why. I’m not completely sure, but I think it’s this: there seems to be a change in the wind. Everywhere I turn, there are signs that people are beginning to re-think what we’re doing in our approaches to crime, how we treat victims and address their needs, and how we deal with offenders through sentencing, incarceration, probation and parole, and reentry.

Recent evidence of this was at the statewide reentry summit I attended this week, titled “Exploring and Examining Innovative Reentry Strategies for the 21st Century.” It was held at Widener University School of Law, in a large auditorium. The room was packed. But more important than the number of people attending, was WHO was in the room and who was on the roster of speakers: representatives from the federal government, state senators and representatives, judges, police officers, law school deans and faculty, church pastors, former gang leaders, former drug dealers, and other ex-offenders, lawyers (both prosecutors and defense attorneys), heads of non-profit organizations, prison chaplains, local government officials, and community activists. We came from a wide range of political, socioeconomic, educational, ethnic, and racial backgrounds.

The new Secretary of the PA Department of Corrections, John Wetzel, was one of the speakers, as was the Court Administrator of Pennsylvania, and a member of PA’s Board of Probation and Parole (who is also the president of the National Association of Probation Executives).

In five hours, we heard from 20 speakers, representing all of these different perspectives. And the message from every speaker was essentially the same:
• much of what we have been doing in our criminal justice system in America, and particularly in Pennsylvania, is failing;
• many of our current policies and practices do NOT make our communities safer, do NOT reduce crime rates or recidivism, and do NOT help offenders to break cycles of addiction and crime to become law-abiding citizens;
• this failing system is costing all of us, as taxpayers, shocking sums of money; and
• we can and must do better.

We heard about best practices and evidence-based models that DO work to reduce crime and recidivism, that decrease the number of people in prisons, and that prepare returning citizens to become productive, law-abiding members of society, which also protect community safety and cost less money.

Several speakers addressed the need to change policies and practices that result in “collateral consequences” that often serve to “punish” people for the rest of their lives after a criminal conviction – even after they have served out their sentence – by making them ineligible or excluding them from certain types of housing, employment, medical benefits, financial aid, education programs, parental rights and the right to vote.

Other speakers talked about procedural and policy changes during arrests, in prisons and jails, and during probation and parole that can minimize the traumatic impact on an offender’s family, especially their children.

The audience frequently broke into spontaneous applause throughout the afternoon as speaker after speaker presented solid models for change. There were even periodic shouts of “Amen!” At the end of the day, as we filed out of the auditorium, even the oppressive heat and humidity outside couldn’t dampen the palpable sense of positive energy and forward momentum. It felt like (dare I say it?) . . . hope.

And I’m feeling like maybe, just maybe, we’re poised at the threshold of:

a sea-change,
Into something rich and strange.
~ The Tempest, W. Shakespeare

This afternoon, as the storm clouds that have hung over the city for the past few days scudded away, and the sun peeked out ever so briefly, I felt it again.

The weatherman says the days ahead will hold a mix of clouds and sun, with variable winds. There’s a continuing chance of showers and thunderstorms, and temperatures may fluctuate from hot to cold.

But the long range forecast is for “Clearing skies. Mostly sunny. Moderate temperatures.”

I like the sound of that.

POSTSCRIPT: In the coming weeks and months, I’ll continue writing about some of the efforts coming out of this summit and related criminal justice and restorative justice topics. If you’d like to receive notice when I post additional articles, you can SUBSCRIBE or FOLLOW my blog using the links on the right. And you can help to keep the momentum going, in part, by sharing or forwarding this post to others who might be interested using the LIKE or SEND buttons below.
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  • many of the speakers at the reentry summit used the term returning citizens, and urged us to do the same, and to drop terms like ex-offender, former prisoner, ex-con, and other labels that serve to perpetuate the stigma and ostracism for people even after they have been released from prison

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  • Here’s a sampling of some of the efforts I’m involved in:
    • working with incarcerated women at Lancaster County Prison on skills and transition plans to help them be successful upon their release through the Lancaster County Re-entry Management Organization (RMO)
    • walking alongside a dear friend as she processes her profound grief over her son’s life-without-parole prison sentence (sent to prison when he was 16, this week he spent his 21st birthday behind bars )
    • speaking engagements with several book clubs and churches about Grace Goes to Prison and Marie Hamilton’s prison work
    • completing an intensive national certification training program on best practices to help people with criminal records find employment
    • planning for local implementation of a national framework from the Annie E. Casey Foundation called “Healing Communities” to engage houses of worship in reaching out to members of their own congregations affected by crime and incarceration
    • meeting with representatives from various community agencies about ways to assist children of incarcerated parents
    • meeting with a collaborative group to explore possibilities for social enterprise ventures

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Here’s an excellent report published just a few weeks ago that outlines bipartisan criminal justice reforms that have been successful in six traditionally “tough on crime” states, to decrease their prison populations, cut costs and protect communities:
Smart Reform is Possible (August, 2011)

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: city life lancaster pa grace goes to prison restorative justice criminal justice healing communities rmo

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