Last March we marked the 20th anniversary of the Public Service program
with a birthday party of sorts.
We called it Public Interest Week.
Since the 1970s, the incarceration rate and, subsequently, re-entry rates have quadrupled so that more than 630,000 people return home from prison each year. A small number of low-income communities of color that are already struggling with a host of problems — poor healthcare and education systems, weak labor markets and little or no access to capital because of redlining practices — bear the burden of re-entry, said Travis.
During his keynote address, Travis, who is president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, discussed re-entry prospects for prisoners today and ways to improve the parole system. Incarceration rates have soared, he said, in part because “the retributive impulse that Americans have expressed so powerfully with incarceration has also hijacked the parole system.”
The parole system is “a shadow of its former self,” he said. It is more surveillance than support and service-oriented today and instead of securing early release through good behavior, prisoners max out of the system. Increased surveillance has resulted in what Travis calls “back-end sentencing;” people are sent back to prison for missing appointments, failing drug tests and engaging in other types of misconduct.
If the same level of analysis were applied to this system as regular sentencing, it “wouldn’t withstand scrutiny for a second” because of its unfairness, said Travis.
The retributive impulse extends to re-entry through “invisible punishments” enacted by federal and state legislatures, he said. These regulations deny individuals access to jobs, public housing, welfare benefits, driving privileges, and the ballot box, which diminish prospects for re-entry.
For Travis, the downfall of indeterminate sentencing, a unifying penal philosophy oriented towards prisoner reintegration, unleashed this retributive impulse. In that model, judges determined the length of sentences and parole boards decided when to actually release prisoners based on their readiness to return to society. Post-release, parole agents supervised former prisoners to ensure that they re-established positive relationships with their families, work places and other community institutions.
Both the left and the right attacked the model in the 1970s, said Travis. Civil rights activists called for limiting the discretion of judges, prison administrators and parole authorities because of racial and class disparities in sentencing. Political conservatives questioned the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs and critiqued the model for being too “soft on crime,” he said.
In response, federal and state legislatures began enacting sentencing reforms, resulting in a hodgepodge of sentencing philosophies and practices that fostered what Travis calls the “democratization of punishment.”
In effect, the democratization of punishments enables politicians to get elected on “tough on crime” platforms, causing the prison population to soar, while “losing track of the fact of reentry,” said Travis.
The re-entry problem must be addressed at the community level where the most pain is felt, said Travis. He proposed that police, workforce development, health care, child welfare and family services, faith groups and other community institutions coordinate the reintegration of a high-risk population with health issues and diminished earning potential.