The Most Important Thing We Can Do to Help Formerly Incarcerated People Thrive

By Kenrya Rankin Dec 16, 2015

Each year, more than 600,000 people reenter society after serving time in prison or jail. And statistics show that they are disproportionately Black and Latino, as they are respectively six and 2.5 times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers. While the federal government is taking tentative steps toward criminal justice reform, the National Institute of Justice reports that 60 to 75 percent of the formerly incarcerated are jobless a full year after release. And those to find jobs are often still derailed by other barriers, such as poverty, housing refusal, lack of education and lingering court fees.

Root & Rebound is an Oakland-based nonprofit that helps ex-offenders released in California navigate the legal aspects of those barriers. We talked to founder and executive director Katherine Katcher about why we need reentry advocates, how families can provide support and where people in other states can turn for help.

Why is this work important?

Fully 688,000 people nationally and 50,000 people in California come home from prison and jail each year, and one in three Americans live with a criminal record. Root & Rebound’s model is built upon the knowledge that—with such a devastatingly large population impacted by mass incarceration—legal support for this population needs to be large-scale and far-reaching in design to meet the enormity of need. To truly make a difference in the lives of thousands of people who need our help, we can’t afford to keep following the traditional legal aid model of one attorney per client, working on one specific issue or area of the law if we want to address this need head-on. Our model is built to educate and empower people in reentry, their families and loved ones, and supporters with legal education, training and follow-up support so they can thrive back in the community.

People in reentry—disproportionately poor and people of color—are especially disadvantaged and have nowhere to turn for help. There is a huge, growing population of people in reentry in the United States and each one faces incredible legal and practical barriers as they try and get their lives back on track, purely because of their records or time served. Examples of these barriers include an inability to get an ID or open a bank account, enormous court debt, and denials of employment, housing and public benefits. The American Bar Association has determined that nationally, people with criminal convictions face up to 44,000 federal, state and local restrictions—not including illegal discrimination. In addition to these barriers, we see a "justice gap" across the country; low-income people lack access to legal resources. In fact, legal aid programs turn away nearly one million cases annually due to lack of resources. In California, statistics show there is only one legal aid attorney available to serve approximately 8,000 low-income people.
The overall effect of these barriers and the lack of attorneys to guide and assist through these issues has resulted in a failed state of reentry, where people can find it almost impossible to overcome systemic legal and practical barriers to stability. This is reflected not only in high recidivism rates, where over 67 percent of prisoners are re-arrested within three years of release, but in cycles of poverty, unemployment, substance abuse and homelessness, all of which negatively impact their quality of life and public health and safety. As many as 50 percent of people in reentry become homeless. The criminal justice system has contributed to approximately 20 percent of the United States poverty rate, and nearly two-thirds of people who exit prisons each year face long-term unemployment. 

What is the biggest barrier facing the formerly incarcerated as they try to reintegrate into society?

To us, the biggest barrier is the lack of critical legal information that people need in order to overcome barriers in reentry. We see the major issues as:

—Enormous legal and practical barriers to stability and success, including an inability to get an ID or open a bank account, enormous court debt, denials of employment, housing, and public benefits

—A complete lack of legal advocates, knowledge and navigational resources about these barriers

—An infrastructure of people and agencies who already support and work with those in reentry—including family and loved ones, social services agencies, housing facilities, legal advocacy groups, education programs, religious institutions, substance abuse facilities, corrections departments and government agencies—that lack the legal guidance necessary to navigate critical and often crippling issues

The lack of an integrated, knowledgeable and supported reentry infrastructure undermines the spirit and intent of reform efforts to reduce incarceration levels. The “Roadmap to Reentry” guide illuminates pathways to stability and success post-incarceration by educating people on how to navigate enormous legal and practical barriers.

In terms of the legal barriers, there are many—which is why the guide covers nine areas! Reentry is so unique to each individual, so we see that people experience very different issues, much of it dependent on their life circumstances and goals. The biggest issues that we see are court-ordered debt and fees that have amounted over time, which leads to an inability to get an ID; housing and employment discrimination; trouble reunifying with children and loved ones upon release; and unlawful parole conditions that can overly restrict where people can live and work. 

What is the most important thing families can do to ease the transition?

Plan, prepare and do research! Family has access to phone and Internet, so they can help the loved one make plans and goals and then research opportunities in the area they are returning to—including housing, employment, education and support services. If you know your loved one’s goals and have a timeline for completion, you can help to set them up for success before they get out. If the county to which they are returning doesn’t have the right resources, they can help their loved one understand the process to transfer counties, either before or after release. Also, I would say that families can help their loved one in reentry by helping them do research on the law—reading manuals like ours to help their loved one understand whether they are actually banned from public housing or public benefits, and what kinds of jobs they can get—because many myths persist. So family can help a huge amount by educating themselves, getting a ton of resources and then empowering their loved one with that information. 

The other thing that I think is critical for family members is to take care of themselves. If you find your loved one a support group, find one for yourself too. Families are often the support structure for a person in reentry, but of course they do not have the education of a case manager, therapist or social worker, yet they are playing that role. So having support for families who are helping someone through the ups and downs of reentry is critical.

Your “Roadmap to Reentry” guide helps ex-offenders navigate the reentry process in California. What national resources can people in other states access?

There really is nothing else that is as comprehensive, holistic and simply written, particularly not when it comes to legal guides. Though our guide is California-specific and won’t be able to identify or explain the specific local laws in another state, would tell people to look at it as it can prepare them for the issues to expect in reentry, and some strategies around them. It might also get you thinking about important questions to ask pro bono attorneys, case managers and other community supporters about the rights, restrictions and laws in your state. It is also important to note that the guide does cover federal law, which is at play in many of the areas the guide covers, including: federal supervision, voting, housing, employment, education, public benefits and federal expungement. So if you want to learn about or get a feel for the federal laws that govern in certain situations (like employment), you might find this guide as a useful starting point. We also list some other resources on our website.