* In order to protect the identities of “James” and “Linda,” and to avoid contributing to further hardship and stigmatization, their names have been changed.
Grappling with freedom in the Justice Reinvestment era
When Jodi Peterson decided to help a man living at Cooper Court — Boise’s now-defunct tent city — obtain state identification, she did not realize she was going to end up visiting the DMV with him nine times. In January 2016, Peterson met a man she calls James*, who had been homeless for 14 years following six years in prison. Soon after his release, James lost his prison ID; he had long since lost his birth certificate and Social Security card. He lived the next 14 years effectively without an identity, making it virtually impossible to get a job, steady healthcare, permanent housing or most other social services.
Over the past decade, approximately 24 states, including Idaho, have passed legislation aimed at shifting criminal justice funding away from punitive and lengthy sentences for felons, and toward giving nonviolent offenders the (much less costly) opportunity to rehabilitate on parole or some other form of supervision. Eighteen months after implementing the Justice Reinvestment Act, Idaho’s prison population dropped by 3 percent, yielding $14 million in avoided costs to the state. Today, Idaho’s offenders are less likely to finish their entire sentences under incarceration, like James did, and can instead transition back to their communities with more structure and accountability.
States like Idaho are under pressure to capitalize on the promises of Justice Reinvestment—namely, cost savings and reduced rates of re-offense—by better helping offenders overcome the many challenges they face when they reenter their communities. Yet offender success depends on both personal variables and environmental factors determined by complex public policy, usually administered by agencies that are not focused on correctional outcomes.
For example, the sticking point in James’s ID problem was that re-obtaining any form of official identification usually requires showing multiple other forms of identification. James knew his Social Security number, but could not obtain a new Social Security card without a photo ID and his birth certificate; he could not get his birth certificate without a photo ID. The DMV could pull up his old driver’s license number, but because his license had been expired for more than 10 years, Idaho’s system did not store his photo. James’s long-lost prison ID had his photo on it, but the Idaho Department of Correction did not have the ability to re-print it.
Ultimately, Peterson used her own social network to find a solution for James. She brought the issue to the attention of Idaho Department of Correction (IDOC) Director Kevin Kempf after meeting him at a panel discussion they both took part in. She got a lead from a comment on a Facebook post about the situation, which led her to a notary with a liberal interpretation of the rules regarding photo identification. The notary’s stamp allowed James to get his birth certificate reprinted. With the birth certificate and his original prison intake form — which IDOC Deputy Director Henry Atencio found in a warehouse full of paper records — James was able to return to the DMV and finally get a state ID. Peterson says that this ninth and final trip to the DMV happened on a Friday; James was employed on Saturday. Getting an ID was not the end of James’s problems—although he has a job, he’s still homeless—but it was the beginning of being able to address them.
Many offenders face similar challenges to obtaining state identification, and Peterson’s work advocating for James brought momentum to an already-brewing effort to address the issue. Beginning in January 2017, a “mobile DMV” will visit Idaho’s prisons a few times each month to ensure that soon-to-be-released offenders will have state identification before being released into the community.
Besides obtaining identification, other challenges to reentry include stable housing, access to health services substance use treatment, and the ability to find employment. Support and behavior of peers and family play a key role. The fact that these challenges cannot be wholly controlled by the Idaho Department of Correction begs a couple of questions:
- What ongoing policy issues in our community are impacting offenders’ ability to lead life outside prison?
- Lacking resolution to those issues, how do offenders get help and find a second chance at life?
THE MENTAL HEALTH GAP
Consider the case of Linda*, who’s been on parole in Idaho for the past two years. In prison, Linda received medication for mental health. When she was released on parole, the Department of Correction provided her with a limited supply of the medication, but she was responsible for finding treatment on the outside. Linda says the prescription would have cost her $500 a month, as she did not have insurance at the time. Simply quitting the medication would have caused severe withdrawals. She credits Terry Reilly Health Services with helping her get medication and eventually transition off the drug safely. Linda married since she’s been released on parole, and now receives care through her husband’s insurance. Although Linda’s story highlights the critical role of Terry Reilly and similar providers, the data show that Linda is probably one of the lucky ones.
According to a January 2016 report by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), the Idaho Department of Correction supervises approximately 4,500 parolees across the state. The report shows that among a screened subset of all Idaho’s 18,700 probationers and parolees, just under half have a “moderate or high level of mental distress.” (The report does not separate parolees from probationers in this context). For parolees, upon release their access to mental health services may halt, unless they have insurance, qualify for Medicaid, are able to access community health services (like Linda did), or are assigned by a judge to Mental Health Court.
Idaho is most concerned with offenders who have unmet mental health needs and are at a moderate or high risk to reoffend — of whom there are at least 3,345. The offenders who are not getting treatment usually fall in the Medicaid coverage gap, along with tens of thousands of other Idahoans. WICHE estimates a $10 million funding gap in order to provide mental health services to those moderate- and high-risk offenders who need treatment but are not receiving it, and the Spokesman Review reported in July that Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong plans to ask the Idaho legislature for $10.5 million to cover these costs — though should the Legislature vote to expand Medicaid, the $10.5 million allocation would no longer be needed.
Numerous researchers – including Luther et al, Bruce et al , Metraux et al, and Visher et al – demonstrate that securing stable, affordable housing is an immediate and critical challenge that all parolees must overcome. In Ada County, affordable housing is hard to come by even without a criminal record. Deanna Watson, Executive Director of the Boise City/Ada County Housing Authority, explains, “Right now, the market is really friendly to landlords. They can pick from the cream of the crop. [People with criminal histories] find it harder to compete with people who don’t have that in their past.”
There are a number of private transitional homes available to offenders, but most of the homes have limits on length of residency. Plus, Linda says that in her own experience trying to find housing, due to the growing number of parolees in the community, vacancies in those homes are also limited.
Some parolees would be eligible for federally subsidized housing, known as Section 8 vouchers. Those vouchers are limited, however, and the last time people could apply to be on the Boise City/Ada County Housing Authority’s Section 8 waiting list was during a three-week period in May of 2015. Prior to that, the waiting list had been closed since 2011. Watson notes that a number of major landlords in the area have completely opted out of working with the voucher program; the market is favorable enough that they do not need Section 8 renters. The City of Boise also operates about 300 affordable rental units, but the wait time for those units is usually about a year.
The Boise City/Ada County Housing Authority is planning to build a 50-unit apartment complex near Whitewater Park Boulevard, and the Idaho Statesman reports that the City is also working to add another 120 affordable units near Downtown. However, some Whitewater Park Boulevard-area residents are meeting these plans with resistance. Watson also notes that limited federal funding is a hindrance. Diana Lachiondo, City of Boise Director of Community Partnerships, points out that other potential funding solutions have gone unexplored, such as a Housing Trust Fund. Washington, for example, uses a Housing Trust Fund to provide capital needed to build and preserve affordable housing. Idaho also has a Housing Trust Fund, which the Idaho Legislature established in 1992. However, Lachiondo says, “it doesn’t have any money in it, and it never has.”
A NEW APPROACH: COMMUNITY MENTORING
“There’s days that I know I hung my head pretty low, and almost wished to go back,” Linda told me. “It was easier. I had my meals and house, and everything else…I just wish that they could open their eyes and give us a little more of a chance.”
The Idaho Department of Correction launched an initiative this year to help more parolees build a network of people willing to give them that second chance. Called Free2Succeed, the new community mentorship program pairs soon-to-be-released offenders with volunteers who tap their own personal and professional networks to help identify housing, employment, and other services for the offender. The mentor maintains a long-term relationship with the parolee, providing help, guidance and accountability.
The idea for Free2Succeed occurred to Director Kempf when he agreed to help a man at his church find housing, food, and a job for his daughter, who was getting ready to leave prison. “With the swipe of a pen, we were able to get her 14 days’ worth of food, a job and a completely furnished place to live.” Kempf says he hopes to engage other organizations, secular and religious, with similar resources. Currently, about 100 parolees participate, though more than 300 have requested to be part of the program, pointing to a need to recruit more mentors. Kempf says the Department hopes to recruit at least a thousand mentors.
The Free2Succeed program is new enough that there are no results to report yet. Other states have implemented similar programs with apparent success, though studies on the topic are limited. The following are a few of the most well-known examples:
- A Colorado mentorship program served a total of 48 offenders over three years; of those offenders, only one had returned to prison as of 2014.
- Michigan instituted a parolee mentorship program as part of a larger parole overhaul in 2005. One local news story states, five years later, mentor program participants in one county boasted an extremely low 11 percent rate of re-offense. (However, during that period Michigan conducted an overhaul of their prisoner reentry programs, including relaxing standards governing what types of offenses would result in re-incarceration. That one county’s low rate of re-offense could simply be part of the state’s overall 20% reduction in recidivism since the overhaul was implemented).
- The San Diego Sheriff’s Department launched a peer mentor/case management program for women in 1996; a year-long study conducted about a decade later by Goldstein, et. al showed a 77% reduction in recidivism among participants.
Given the differing structures and environmental factors of these varying programs, it’s difficult to make a definitive conclusion about the effectiveness of such programs. Studies by Marlow, et. al and Schinkel and Whyte show positive impacts of such programs, though the researchers point out that these programs are probably most effective when paired with other meaningful and long-term sources of support.
Although mentor programs appear to help, it is unlikely that they eliminate the impact of other critical factors, including offenders’ own attitudes, participation in treatment programs, and access to housing and health services. Lacking control over those and other policy challenges, however, correctional departments institute these mentorship programs to help offenders navigate gaps in the community’s infrastructure as best they can.
This is Linda’s second time on parole, and she says that this time, she’s not going back. She points to a lot of factors that are different this time around — her own motivation, her age, the fact that she’s now married, and the birth of a grandchild. “Now I’m clean and sober and able to use a good support network out there. Networking is so important while you’re on parole. You use it for your jobs and family and support.”