Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?

Our mission is to reverse the trend of mass incarceration in Colorado. We are a coalition of nearly 7,000 individual members and over 100 faith and community organizations who have united to stop perpetual prison expansion in Colorado through policy and sentence reform.

Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.

If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Getting Inmates Off the Treadmill

Who'd ever have thought it? America's most imaginative prisoner re-entry program isn't flourishing in some left-leaning coastal city, but rather in "heart of America" Wichita, Kan.

And the program, with immense promise to start reducing burgeoning prison populations, is being pushed by as odd a political couple as you'll ever find — Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, chairwoman of the Democratic Governors Association, and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., Christian conservative leader and now presidential candidate.

Brownback, a sponsor of the federal Second Chance Act to stimulate state re-entry programs, startled a group of elected officials and residents in Wichita by saying: "I want to see recidivism in this nation cut in half in the next five years, and I want it to start in Kansas."

Sebelius, her state corrections director and other Cabinet officials have taken up the cause, sponsoring efforts to help inmates get off the familiar treadmill of arrest, incarceration, release, then repeated arrest and yet more prison time. More prisoners are receiving, on their release, needed mental-health and drug counseling, training on how to apply for a job, and tips on finding housing.

Others are spurring the effort. Eric Cadora and Tony Fabelo of the New York-based Justice Mapping Center came with maps showing that the vast majority of Kansas prison admissions — and prisoner re-entries — occur in a narrowly defined set of economically blighted, overwhelmingly minority neighborhoods in the state's major cities.

The most dramatic problem neighborhood: a bleak ribbon of territory just northeast of downtown Wichita. Significantly, the maps showed the neighborhood isn't just a hot spot of prison admissions; it's also off the charts in dilapidated housing, disastrous school scores, levels of foster care and welfare spending.

People "get" such maps, says Cadora, who coined the term "million-dollar block" — a single census block where government is spending at least $1 million a year to incarcerate people. The most obvious conclusion: Government agencies need to break down their organizational "silos" and figure out how to help the ex-prisoners and their families start stabilizing their lives.

Sebelius and the legislative leaders, noting that Kansas' prison population had risen 25 percent in a decade, with projections of another 25-percent rise, turned to the Council of State Governments' Justice Center.

Michael Thompson, the Justice Center's director, homed in on Kansas' problem: Two of every three prisoners, he found, had been on parole, probation or community supervision. Some were being recommitted for a new crime, but close to 90 percent for some parole or probation violation. They tested positive for drugs, they hadn't gotten a job, they failed to pay child support, or they failed to show up for an appointment with their case officer.

Indeed, says Thompson, "The state was abetting a vicious circle — cutting training or drug-treatment programs in prison to find funds to add more prison beds, accelerating recidivism back to prison."

Kansas officials are at work reforming that system statewide, aided by Thompson and his colleagues and foundations ranging from JEHT to Soros to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

And now there's another breakthrough experiment brewing for Wichita's most troubled blocks. With a clear need for quality affordable housing, Richard Baron of McCormack Baron Salazar — America's premier developer of mixed-income housing areas in troubled cities — was called in.

Baron told local officials that scattered housing units wouldn't achieve enough — you need a master-planned neighborhood, with housing and improved schools, parks and other facilities, an environment in which ex-prisoners can blend in, receive services they need and have a chance for success. Officials were skeptical at first, but they visited Baron's highly successful St. Louis projects and came back convinced.

But what about the politics here? Aren't conservatives the "lock-'em-up" crowd? Well, Brownback (who occasionally spends a night in prison to gauge inmate culture) talks of young men "who get separated, isolated, start using drugs or alcohol, often break away from their family and start into criminal activity. ... Yes, many have committed horrific crimes. They owe a debt to society. But they need connections. They need people to invest in their lives."

Seattle Times Editorial