“When does the sentence end?“ Albert Holmes says he often faces that question as he works to help people who have been released from incarceration and who are re-entering the general community.
Holmes, president and CEO of My Father’s House, was one of the speakers Thursday, Oct. 4, at a conference at Marquette Law School that focused on what can be done to provide paths for more people in those situations to establish stable lives.
The conference, “Racial Inequality, Poverty, and Criminal Justice,” drew an audience that included two Wisconsin Supreme Court justices, several circuit judges, prosecutors (including Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm), defense attorneys, and many who work in agencies that try to help those getting out of prison or jail or who are advocates on issues involved with the subject.
Holmes said that many people face big consequences of having been incarcerated, consequences that often make becoming stable members of the community difficult. The impact can be felt long after their release.
Bruce Western, the keynote speaker at the conference, said that income support, health care, and housing are three of the most urgent needs of those who are re-entering the community, and those issues trip up many people. Western is a sociology professor at Columbia University and author of a new book, Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison. The book describes the lives of 122 who talked to interviewers several times over the period of a study in Boston.
Western said the people generally lived in “deep poverty” and faced a formidable list of personal issues. But many were also brilliant and creative. A year after release, two-thirds of them had stayed out of prison and some had reached stability in their lives. But it wasn’t easy.
Western said American society and particularly low-income communities, often pre-dominantly African American, have been negatively affected in major ways by the surge of incarceration across the country that began in the early 1970s. He said that, until then, incarceration rates had generally been around 100 for every 100,000 people. Now, he said, they are 700 for every 100,000 people. Nowhere else in the world are there such rates, he said, and the result has not been safer communities.
Western called mass incarceration “a historic mistake,”’ not consistent with American values. “I would like to think this is an aberration in the progress of our society,” he said. “Criminal justice right now is not serving justice.“ But, he said, he sees signs across the country, including in Milwaukee, that things are changing for the better and more people can be helped successfully to avoid incarceration.
The Marquette Law School Poll has asked registered voters from across Wisconsin about their attitudes on criminal justice policies six times, beginning in 2012. Professor Michael O’Hear described the results to the audience, saying that high levels of support had been found consistently for giving people who have been imprisoned second chances after their release and for helping them with rehabilitation while they are incarcerated. O’Hear said there was “overwhelming support” in a 2016 poll for programs aimed at helping prisoners establish stable lives after release.
But, he cautioned, people want the criminal justice system to do many things, some of which are in tension with each other.
O’Hear and Professor Charles Franklin, director of the Law School poll, said there were more similarities than differences on these issues between Republicans and Democrats and between white people and black people.
Lack of partisan differences could be “an opportunity of the moment” for bipartisan agreement on prison-related issues, Franklin said. But poll results also show that criminal justice issues do not rate as a high priority for many people, he said. Issues such as health, jobs, K-12 education, and roads are higher priorities overall.
Janine Geske, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice and retired distinguished professor of law at Marquette Law School, interviewed L.T. Austin, who served 15 years in prison in six incarcerations and is now a re-entry advocate, working for an organization that helps people with jobs and other needs. Austin said some of the times when he was released, he had difficulty with housing and income and other issues and he was embraced by gang members who got him back into trouble. Finally, supported by family members and working with someone he called his sponsor, he broke the cycle.
Holmes and three others who work with organizations helping people with re-entry took part in a panel discussion on what they have observed. Housing and medical needs were high priority needs of those they serve, several said.
Megan Wynn, community justice director of the Benedict Center, said more needs to be done to help meet people’s needs and there needs to be more coordination among those aiming to help.
Other panelists were Terry Stodthoff, executive director of the Alma Center, and Clarence Johnson, executive director of Wisconsin Community Services.
Ed de St. Aubin, associate professor of psychology in the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences of Marquette University, led a discussion with Brian Osei, a case worker and internships mentor at Project Return, and Alex Miceli, a Marquette student who is an intern working at Project Return, on how internship programs for college students can help people who are re-entering the general community – and teach the students some valuable lessons.
In a concluding conversation with Mike Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, Western praised the energy and commitment among conference participants in trying to improve the landscape in Wisconsin for helping those leaving prison get on stable paths. He said the conditions exist for improvement in Wisconsin.
But, he said, much needs to be done to heal communities that have been heavily affected by the impact of over-incarceration. He said for African Americans, it was particularly an issue that those who had a legacy of losing their freedom had often been the ones who most were losing their freedom through criminal justice processes.