Federal Reentry Programs Help Rebuild Lives
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Politics and Activism

Federal Reentry Programs Help Rebuild Lives

President Barack Obama recently said in a speech about mass incarceration and reentry, "We believe that when people make mistakes, they deserve the opportunity to rebuild their lives.”

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Federal Reentry Programs Help Rebuild Lives
Shannon Nunes

According to a White House report, 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United States. Every year, 600,000 individuals are released from prison trying to defy the odds and put their lives back together. However, the vicious cycle of recidivism is difficult to escape. The Pew Center for Research states that the average national recidivism rate for released prisoners is 43.3%. Almost half of those who are released from state or federal prison will return because they lack the support systems and the financial stability needed to escape the lives that they lived before. The opportunities for a second chance, even after a minor conviction, can be illusive. High rates of recidivism and the need for successful reentry programs I believe are the most pressing issues of our time and demand action. One mistake should never lead to a lifetime of obstacles to become a productive member of society.

A few weeks ago, I observed the Special Options Services (“SOS”) reentry program at the Untied Stated District Court for the Easter District. The SOS program provides an intensive support system which uses direct judicial involvement for non-violent youthful offenders under the age of 25. Judge Weinstein, the creator of SOS, “believed that instead of pretrial detention, many youthful offenders might benefit more from intensive supervision and access to education, job training, and counseling.” Opposing prison sentences for those who clearly need support creates an opportunity for them to not only succeed, but to thrive in a world that before seemed impossible to access. SOS is designed to do just that and give these young adults a foundation by which they can live their lives without future justice involvement.

Since March of 2013, SOS has had 33 participants, 78% are male, and 97% are Black or Hispanic. Of the individuals who start the program 45.5% have less than a high school equivalent education and only 6% have some college. Most of them are younger than I am. They clearly need guidance and support, not jail. So, the program provides them with the opportunity for higher education and job training, but they are also required to uphold a certain standard of responsibility and are expected to commit to a plan of action. If they do all the things they commit to and continue to progress, they are released from the program and their case is dismissed. This process can sometimes take up to three years of long hard work.

Every two weeks, the program participants meet in a courtroom with a Federal Intensive Supervision Specialist, several federal judges, and a social worker. I was fortunate enough to sit in on one of these meetings. In the middle of the room is a long rectangular table where the judges, social worker and a Supervision Specialist sit. The participants all sit together in the jury box and are called down one at a time to sit at the head of the table. It was intimidating to even imagine sitting at a table full of federal judges, but these kids were doing it and showed no fear because they were determined to turn their lives around. One by one, theses incredible young adults sat down in front of not only the judges, but also observers such as myself, and told their stories. They told us all about the progress they were making or in a few cases about the obstacles they were encountering. The judges expressed true excitement when they heard good news. Conversely, bad news showed a lack of adherence to their action plan and goals and prompted disapproval around the table. This was followed by healthy dose of constructive criticism aimed at getting them back on track.

While watching the meeting I couldn’t shake the familial sense they all had towards one another. The rectangular table they sat around did not seem like a courtroom conference table, but instead felt like a large family dinner table, where every two weeks, a sometimes dysfunctional family sits down to eat. The parents (judges) interrogated and questioned the kids (the participants) about what they’ve done over the past two weeks, expressing pure joy over their achievements and sadness or disapproval in their failures, but they were always there to pick them up even though some of them made mistakes.

One participant’s success in particular provoked enormous excitement and happiness from the judges and the social worker. Over the past two years, while in the SOS program, this young man worked every weekday, from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. and then attended school until 10 p.m. On the weekends, he went to more classes and committed himself to his schoolwork whenever he had free time. After two years of astounding devotion and a conviction in his ability to change his life, an idea reinforced by the judge’s guidance and support, he received his Associate’s Degree which he proudly displayed to all of us. His future looks bright.

I think what makes the program work is the tremendous amount of time the judges and other staff take to advise and support these young people, strikingly similar to what a parent does for a child. In many ways they do become a substitute for the family that many of these young people do not have. Watching each young person talk about their successes and sometimes their failures is a testament to the hard work that every participant, judge and social worker puts into the SOS program.

Finally, for those who are not convinced that programs such as SOS are the solution, I ask that you look at the costly burden of imprisoning one individual. A report written by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, states that if the SOS program did not exist, collectively the 33 participants in the program would have been in prison for nearly 839 months, costing the state $2.1 million. The SOS program is a fraction of that cost, often relying on volunteer hours from the judges and others in our communities.

More importantly, these 33 young adults, all non-violent offenders, could have wasted years of their lives in a cell. Instead, most of them have turned their lives around because of the SOS program and can make what was once only a dream of a successful future, reality. We have a solemn obligation to raise the standard of living not just for ourselves but for everyone. Programs such as SOS do just that, by not defining an individual solely by the mistakes they made.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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