Community Justice Programs Face New Pressure in Health Crisis

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Photo by Prachatai via Flickr

In criminal justice circles, most talk about the pandemic has focused on the devastating threat posed by the coronavirus to prisons and jails as well as the nation’s police forces.

Less appreciated is its impact on justice programs that work in communities, including nonprofits that help those on probation and parole and inmates who are released from custody.

The spread of the virus has had a major effect on such programs, which already had a very challenging time even before the virus spread.

While the attention to the illness and death among 2.2 million people behind bars around the U.S. is well deserved, more than twice as many—4.5 million the last time a national count was issued, for 2016—were on “community supervision” of various kinds.

Add to that nearly 615,000 prisoners released annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics figures reported last month  for 2018, and an increasing number being freed daily as authorities hope to limit the death and hospitalization toll from COVID-19.

The result is a crush of additional work for social-service providers who try to help those who have been in trouble with the law find medical care, housing and jobs.

That was the conclusion of a panel assembled this week by the Council on Criminal Justice, a think tank working to advance understanding of criminal justice policy choices around the nation. The council held its session by videoconference on Tuesday.

COVID-19 “has dramatically impacted our work,” said Ellen Donnarumma of Community Resources for Justice, a Boston-based organization that helped nearly 600 people in residential re-entry centers last year. Many of the ex-prisoners who are being released “don’t have anywhere to go,” she said.

At a time of “huge cuts” in government programs and employment, “a huge number of people are coming home,” said Samra Haider of the Center for Employment Opportunities, a New York City-based organization that works in ten states to “provide people returning from prison immediate paid employment, skills training, and ongoing career support.”

Such work never has been easy, and it is tougher as social service agencies must work with most offenders remotely instead of in person, and compete with millions of other Americans who also are out of work and may lack medical help themselves.

Service providers must deal with fundamental problems, like the fact that in remote education, “virtual learning is not for everyone,” said Eddie Bocanegra of The Rapid Employment and Development Initiative (“READI Chicago”), which helps those considered at high-risk of getting involved in gun violence.

Even more basic, he said,  “people are being kicked out of their apartments” for failure to pay rent.

Speakers had no dramatic solutions to offer amid a faltering national economy. One of their main missions is to try ensuring that people with criminal records aren’t left out of the current push to provide benefits to all needy Americans affected by the crisis.

The program heard from Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee and a longtime crusader in Congress for criminal justice reform.

Scott expressed hope that the fourth major relief package now being negotiated on Capitol Hill would ensure that offenders are eligible for any federal aid afforded to other citizens.

Perhaps the most hopeful observations were made by former Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele, who now runs a interfaith program called TEEM (The Education and Employment Ministry), which “works to break the cycle of incarceration and poverty by providing education, social services, vocational training and job placement assistance.”

Steele said that during the pandemic, officers were taking fewer probationers and parolees into custody for “technical violations” of their supervision conditions and were requiring fewer urine and breath tests to detect offenders’ drug and alcohol problems.

“We are not arresting people for things they normally would be arrested for,” Steele said, and crime rates have gone down in Oklahoma City, where he is based.

Steele also believes that employers are coming to realize that many of those returning from prison or on probation and parole are “hard workers” who deserve a shot at employment.

He called it a “silver lining” of the pandemic that Americans generally are working “to make sure everyone is safe.”

Speakers were hesitant to forecast that the criminal justice changes occurring during the pandemic would last indefinitely, but re-entry specialist Donnarumma observed that in many aspects of life, “We may never go back to what we thought was normal.”

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.

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