Last year, President Barack Obama declared the final week of April “National Reentry Week,” calling on the country to pay attention to the 600,000 or so people released every year from prison.
“We need to ensure that they are prepared to reenter society and become productive, contributing members of their families and communities—and maybe even role models,” Obama said.
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch followed Obama’s announcement with an op-ed in USA Today and a schedule of 550 events for the inaugural “National Reentry Week” hosted by the Department of Justice that would “highlight how strong reentry programs can make communities safer.”
What happened this year?
Did “National Reentry Week” survive to see its second year under this new administration?
That depends on whom you ask. The Department of Justice (DOJ) said it happened on schedule last month, and they sponsored events across the country, though The Crime Report could only find two events. We found no evidence that Attorney General Jeff Sessions mentioned re-entry. The DOJ did not respond with follow-up questions about what events took place.
Criminal justice reformers who took part in last year’s “National Reentry Week” did not realize it happened last month, which they see as a sign that hard-fought progress in re-entry services, which many say began with George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in 2004, will halt under President Donald Trump.
“Re-entry is something that is nowhere near a priority. I just don’t think there’s much appetite for stuff like that in this administration,” said Ronald Day, associate vice president of the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy at the Fortune Society.
“We want to see momentum continue, and we’re concerned that that trend might reverse.”
Dorsey Nunn, executive director of the Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and a leading advocate for the “Ban the Box” campaign, said it’s hard for him not to curse when talking about the new administration.
“I don’t think they give a damn about re-entry,” Nunn said. “Jeff Sessions is saying marijuana is still a really dangerous drug and people should be punished for that.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to get around to the question of re-entry.”
Big Change in One Year
Last year’s events included job resource fairs and mock interview sessions at federal prisons for soon-to-be-released and recently released prisoners. Local U.S. Attorney’s offices also held events with stakeholders to hear about barriers that prisoners face when they leave prison. While the week was spearheaded by the Obama administration, Republicans like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie participated in events.
For criminal justice reformers, that underlines the striking difference between the Trump administration and its predecessors. Until Trump took office, re-entry has been a bipartisan issue at the federal level.
“The noticeable absence of National Reentry Week, under the Trump Administration, signals yet another rollback of Obama-era efforts to end mass incarceration and support reintegration,” Glenn E. Martin, president of JustLeadershipUSA, an organization with a mission of cutting the U.S. correction population in half by 2030, wrote in an email.
“This is further proof that President Trump is out of step with his own party, as bipartisan support for reentry dates back to President Bush’s 2004 State of the Union speech,”.
“You have Newt Gingrich, the Koch brothers, saying they want to move away from antiquated policies that don’t work,” added Day. “And it was President George W. Bush who actually signed the Second Chance Act in the first place.”
Some traces of that bipartisanship remain.Last month, the Senate passed a resolution introduced by Republican Sen. Rob Portman from Ohio to make April “Second Chance Month.”
Yet the DOJ made no public mention of “National Reentry Week” that The Crime Report could find, and links to reentry sections on the DOJ website go to archived pages. President Donald Trump did not mention the week in his public statements—much less his ubiquitous tweets.
In a response to questions about this year’s events, a DOJ spokesman said that DOJ personnel participated in events around the country, “but it was not mandatory.” They did not respond to a follow-up email about which events occurred. The only DOJ events The Crime Report was able to track down took place at two U.S. Attorney’s offices: the Eastern District of North Carolina and the Southern District of Alabama.
A search of news reports turned up only one mention by a high-ranking Trump official. That was Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, during a visit to a correctional facility in Maryland to view their education programming.
“When men and women return to society better prepared for meaningful employment, the benefits extend beyond their own homes to the nation as a whole. They have the potential to rejoin society as positive, engaged, contributing members of their communities and workplaces,” DeVos said.
DeVos’ rhetoric echoed the lofty sentiments of earlier Republican administrations—and reflected the changing attitudes towards America’s incarcerated, underlined by Bush’s moving declaration in his 2004 State of the Union speech that “America is the land of second chance, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.”
He followed up those words three years later when he signed the Second Chance Act.
Since then, advocates say, there has been major progress in improving employment, housing and health services for ex-offenders. Bush sunk $300 million into employment training and transitional housing for ex-offenders.
Obama continued the effort. The Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion has helped released prisoners access drug abuse and mental health services that they otherwise might not have. A Federal Interagency Reentry Council was established, releasing a report last summer with a “roadmap for the future.” In 2015, the DOJ appointed its first-ever “Second Chance Fellow:” Daryl Atkinson, a senior staff attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) who was formerly incarcerated.
The declaration of the nation’s first “National Re-Entry Week” seemed to underline the sea change in attitudes. But will it be the last?
While movement may have stalled in Washington, re-entry continues to get bipartisan support at the state level. Democratic and Republican governors have created programs to improve re-entry services and reduce recidivism.
Nevertheless, the national government’s agenda-setting power is critical. Some of the advocates interviewed for this story said they’d be surprised if Re-entry Week was marked by any federal official next year.
But that has only inspired them to work harder.
“I think there’s some reinvigoration in the re-entry community to not lose the momentum that has been gained,” Day said. “The folks who have been doing this work for decades now, are not going to sit by idly and let us go back in time.”
Whether that will be enough remains an open question.
“I think the chase is on right now,” said Nunn. “It’s no longer about ‘Should we let you out?’ It’s about catching and locking people up.”
Adam Wisnieski is a Hartford, CT-based freelance reporter, and a contributing editor of The Crime Report. You can follow him on Twitter @adamthewiz. He welcomes comments from readers.