National Reentry Week Can’t Be Just Another Fad

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The United State Department of Justice (DOJ) recently designated the week of April 24-30 as “National Reentry Week.” DOJ grantees, partners, and the Bureau of Prisons have been asked to coordinate events, including job fairs, mentorship programs, meetings with local reentry stakeholders, and the like “to raise awareness about the importance of reentry work.”

It is commendable that the DOJ has called for heightened recognition of the barriers that individuals face in reentry, for improved dialogue between communities and corrections, and for these partnerships to produce sensible solutions to a problem that has plagued our society – the permanence of punishment.

There is always a caveat, however, when a day, week, or month is designated for a particular purpose. For example, people have argued that the history, culture, and contributions that blacks made to America should be celebrated year round, not just during Black History Month. Similarly, mothers and fathers should be honored throughout the year for nurturing their families and building strong communities. And the fight to end homelessness, poverty, and gun violence, among others, needs constant attention, not just a few days during the year when people are outraged by a horrible news story.

My hope is that National Reentry Week doesn’t become another fad. Instead, it needs to build on the momentum gained over the past few years in criminal justice reform. Barack Obama is the first President to visit a federal prison, he has argued for fair chance hiring (“Ban the Box”) for federal jobs, instituted a Pell Grant pilot for college in prison programs, commuted the prison sentences of more individuals than his predecessors combined, and ended the practice of solitary confinement for juveniles, among other laudable feats.

Notwithstanding this great work, we need to continue toiling ahead. Indeed, the criminal justice system has been drastically changed over the past four decades, but this apparatus has been fortified over the past 240 years.  Race is a major issue in the system, but this is nothing new. For example, blacks have always been disproportionately represented in our jails and prisons. Moreover, as report after report has found, poor people of color have not been whistling Dixie in contending that they are often at the top of everything that is bad (criminalization, poor health outcomes, inadequately funded schools, etc.) and the bottom of everything that is good (viable employment, quality schools, safe community, etc.).

Fixing these issues is about marshaling considerable efforts in the communities hit hardest by incarceration. It’s about stemming the tide of people entering the system in the first place (which involves augmenting community resources). Moreover, it’s about effectively addressing the intense stigma and discrimination attached to individuals with criminal histories. This is particularly important as we advance policies designed to increase access to housing, education, employment, and the like. Indeed, although these initiatives mean well, policies don’t hire people. If employers, landlords, and college administrators are hardened in their negative views and perceptions about people who have once run afoul of the law, then a promising policy will go but so far. Policies have been instrumental in producing radical change in our country, but nothing has been more effective than changing hearts and minds. I hope that National Reentry Week does more of the latter!

Categories: Community

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