Why Aiding Prisoner Reentry Demands 'A Bigger Effort'

By RJ Vogt | June 30, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

For people leaving prison, “$40 and a bus ticket” isn’t enough to keep them on the right path.

That was the message from Rob DeLeon, the associate vice president of programs at reentry services provider The Fortune Society, during a June 25 panel hosted by Proskauer Rose LLP in Manhattan. DeLeon knows firsthand, having served 10 years in prison before reentering society.

“We need to make a bigger effort, as a society, of reaching out and saying, ‘There is a landing path for individuals when they come home from prison,’” DeLeon said.

In a glass-paneled room high above Times Square, representatives from academia, BigLaw and pro bono services providers met to discuss reentry challenges that face formerly incarcerated individuals after they’re released — and how the legal community can help.

That help, panelists said, can mean providing assistance with record-sealing laws, touting the value of hiring formerly incarcerated people and ensuring access to mental health services.

Joining DeLeon on the panel was Judy Whiting, general counsel at the Community Service Society of New York; Gwen Washington, director of pro bono at DC Law Students in Court; Esta Bigler, director of Cornell University’s Labor and Employment Law Program; and moderator Bill Silverman, Proskauer’s pro bono partner.

Nomenclature was a key concern, especially after Silverman, who spent time as an assistant U.S. attorney before working in the private sector, asked Whiting to weigh in on the hot-button topic of voting rights for “felons.”

“I would not ever call someone a felon,” she said, gently. “I refer to people as a person with a conviction history ... person first, and not characterizing them by their past.”

Silverman quickly dispelled any potential sense of friction, joking, “It’s the former prosecutor in me.”

Whiting went on to detail how, at least in New York, those with conviction histories are able to vote. Even though the law states that people on parole are ineligible, Gov. Andrew Cuomo “did a workaround” by issuing conditional pardons to everybody on parole specifically allowing them to vote.

“It was a messed-up mechanism, to be sure,” Whiting said. “It did allow a lot of people to vote, but changing the law would be better.”

Whiting also talked about her problems with the state’s new record-sealing law, which was billed as a potential relief mechanism for 600,000 when it took effect in 2017. Her organization, however, has found that it’s actually quite difficult to get statistics on who is eligible, impeding pro bono partners’ ability to help.

She said restrictions like a requirement that sealers have two or fewer convictions make it a struggle for the Community Service Society of New York “to find enough cases for Proskauer to take.”

While record-sealing can help those with convictions get jobs and housing by providing cover from social stigma, Bigler noted that employers shouldn’t be so wary of hiring people who’ve been incarcerated in the first place.

“There is no statistical evidence that hiring someone who has a record increases violence on the job,” she said. “No relationship between that at all.”

Since August 2017, a “Ban the Box” law in New York City has prevented businesses from asking applicants about their criminal pasts until after providing a conditional offer of employment. But according to Bigler, ongoing research is finding that, instead of opening up job opportunities for the formerly incarcerated, the law is having the opposite effect.

“What this has meant for employers is that they decide not to do a conditional offer for someone who is black or Latino, with the assumption that that person has a criminal record,” she said.

Still, she held that the adverse effect is “a first blush,” growing pains as society shifts.

“As employers get more comfortable and hear about success stories, attitudes will change,” Bigler added.

At The Fortune Society, DeLeon noted that over half of the organization’s 300-plus staff has lived experience in the criminal justice system. He said there are lots of jobs, ranging from mentoring opportunities to government work, in which such experience can actually be a plus.

He cited his own experience, having been arrested and tried as an adult at age 17. Now he’s an executive, in charge of a large budget and staffing decisions. For DeLeon, the key to his successful reentry was having the motivator of a wife and child waiting at home.

“I was employed within a few months,” he said. “Unfortunately, this isn’t the story for the majority of men and women who walk through our doors at The Fortune Society.”

He said ensuring access to support systems, housing and especially mental health treatment are crucial to ensuring someone doesn’t slide back into the system or through its cracks.

At The Fortune Society, the commitment to providing such access takes shape in a family services program that gives formerly incarcerated men legal help in handling the child support debts that accrue during their sentences.

“There’s some men that come home with thousands and thousands of dollars in child support arrears,” he said. “These individuals want to reconnect with their children, but navigating the court system with those issues is really hard.”

Ultimately, Washington said lawyers working in a system that tries to paint in broad brushstrokes need to remember that each case, each file, represents an individual’s story. She remembered working as a law clerk, going through folders and being told by her judge, “You are holding somebody’s life in your hands.”

“We need to look at things on a more individual basis,” Washington said. “We are all people at the end of the day, and we need to stop with the otherness.”

--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

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