Becky Randel reports from the Reentry Court at Harlem Community Justice Center where participants are re-convicted at a rate that is 19% lower than a comparison group on standard parole.
During a recent visit to New York I had the opportunity to visit the Harlem Community Justice Center, run by the Center for Court Innovation. Housed in a beautiful old magistrate’s courthouse, the Center runs a number of initiatives, including one to resolve housing disputes and running a Youth Court for non-violent offences. However I was there to find out more about the Harlem Reentry Court and witness the proceedings.
The Court works as an intensive parole programme for medium to high-risk offenders in Upper Manhattan, which has a high crime rate. In fact, along the seven blocks where the Center is, 1 in 20 men have been in prison. These ex-prisoners, like the majority of those with who PRI works with around the world, come from some of the most socially disadvantaged sections of society. Prison will not have eased these problems; it is likely to have made them worse. Therefore, supporting ex-offenders to reintegrate into society is essential if we want to reduce reoffending. This is what the Court aims to do.
The Court’s proceedings are set up relatively formally in a large room with a small table at the front which seats the parolee, his parole officer, counsellor and a staff member aiding his case. Facing them, sitting in front at the bench sits the Judge. I witness a parolee’s progress report, which begins with an update from his parole officer. He’s disappointed; he expected better from his parolee who, while he has been attending the required classes, hasn’t managed to stay clean. The parolee is given a chance to respond and, together with the Judge, they discuss the challenges the parolee is facing, why he’s not meeting the parole conditions and what can be done to change this. The discussion is collaborative, understanding and respectful, although it is clear that change must be forthcoming from the parolee.
Throughout the programme a parolee has consistent contact with members of staff (a case manager and counsellor) and their State-appointed parole officer who is assigned to the Center. This building of relationships between the parolee and staff of the programme is essential, as is the involvement of and collaboration with the parole officers.
At the start of the programme, parolees undergo an in-depth needs assessment and a plan for the nine-month programme is developed for them, which includes referral of the parolee to a range of services – some of which may be required by the terms of his or her parole. Services can include cognitive behavioural therapy, counselling, drug therapy, assistance with housing problems, social welfare and employment. Importantly, the plan is organic and can change with the parolee’s circumstances, which are identified in the fortnightly Court progress reports. It is the consistent monitoring and flexibility of the programme to accommodate and support lives of parolees, which are often chaotic and unstructured, which makes it different from other programmes and which could be adopted to help prisoner reintegration in other countries.
Where violations of parole conditions do occur, everyone involved in the case decides collaboratively on an appropriate response, seeking to identify if the behaviour (eg. not attending drug treatment, not meeting with the parole officer) is increasing the risk of reoffending, or whether a change in services or any support can help the parolee meet his or her parole conditions.
One example given was a parolee who had stopped attending his drug treatment, a condition of his parole. When it was discussed during a Court progress report, it was revealed that a rival gang member was also attending the classes. Usually this kind of violation would land the parolee back in prison, but thanks to the Center’s collaborative and communicative approach, the issue was easily resolved and the parolee was moved to a different drug treatment centre, keeping him in the community and in a better position to complete his drug treatment successfully.
The Center is also taking the lessons it has learned from the Court’s approach to work with the Prosecutor’s Office and police as part of a ‘Reentry Task Force’. This initiative aims to foster innovation to support reintegration and ensure that policy is based on research and evaluation on what works best to ensure that parolees all over the city have the best chance of not reoffending.
PRI works with prison and corrections departments in a number of countries on reintegration initiatives. For an overview of PRI’s work and of some best practice initiatives from around the world, see our recent presentation at the 2012 Association of Members of Independent Monitoring Boards.