Darryl King was the very model of a model inmate. While serving 25 years for murdering a police officer -- he continues to protest his innocence -- he earned a college degree, taught disabled inmates, opened a law library, and served as commander of his prison's chapter of the American Legion.
Since his 1995 release, King, 52, has also been the very model of a model ex-offender. He worked for a state senator, and then, for five years, as a property manager for the Fifth Avenue Committee, a Community Development Corporation (CDC) in his home borough of Brooklyn.
Many of the 600,000 Americans released from prison this year won't fare as well. Estimates of the national recidivism rate range from 32 percent to 60 percent, depending on the standard for counting. In New York, half of ex-offenders return to the state prison system.
King knows that some see him as a once and future criminal. At a national meeting for non-profit property managers the subject of ex-offenders came up. The other managers agreed that former inmates and their families were not welcome in their CDC's housing -- until King stood up and announced that they had an ex-convict in their midst.
King now runs Developing Justice in South Brooklyn, a program at the Fifth Avenue Committee that he argues can serve as a national model for reducing recidivism and helping ex-offenders. Criminal justice and community organizing experts are also optimistic. But their enthusiasm comes amid a growing sense of crisis: that if America doesn't figure out how to help all of its released prisoners, both the ex-offenders' lives, and the nationwide crime rate, may soon take a serious turn for the worse.
In one of the terrible ironies of America's punitive approach to crime control, recent efforts to get tougher on convicts have actually increased the likelihood of recidivism. America saw a 39 percent increase in parole revocations between 1990 and 1997. Cuts in prison rehabilitation programs mean that ex-offenders have fewer employment opportunities, and greater alienation, upon their release. Where they are involved, parole officers and halfway houses are overwhelmed by their caseloads. "In our effort to get rid of parole -- as many as half the offenders are "maxing out" in some states -- there is no mechanism to even provide supervision to these offenders when they come out," says Stephen Rickman, executive director of Weed and Seed, a Department of Justice program to foster community-based anti-crime efforts. Many ex-offenders receive nothing more than a bus ticket and a little cash when they get out of jail, with no good plan for housing or income, and often not even a driver's license.
But awareness of the limitations of punishment is growing, at least in some quarters. The nationwide decrease in crime, particularly in low-income and minority communities, allowed activists who previously focused on reducing crime to think critically about the workings of criminal justice. CDCs, which fought to get offenders off the street, are now faced with ex-offenders coming back. "Geographically, if you look at the concentrated pockets where the inmates are returning to, they're coming back to some of the communities that have over the last five to eight years, been revitalized," says Leslie Nesbitt of the National Congress for Community Economic Development. "Crime is down. There is some level of steady employment. So there is some stability in those neighborhoods. This influx is going to begin to shift things."
The neighborhood served by the Fifth Avenue Committee, Developing Justice's parent organization, is a typical example of these shifts. Over one-quarter of New York City arrestees live in Brooklyn, and Red Hook, one of the areas served by the CDC, was long notorious as a neighborhood that scared even its own residents. Today empty storefronts are rare, and crime is down. The Fifth Avenue Committee is also typical: Created in 1977, it develops low-income housing, offers economic development and employment services, and agitates against the gentrification that is in part a result of its success.
Developing Justice aims to prevent the wave of returning ex-offenders from reversing that success. "CDCs have a track record of solving problems in their communities and of getting the resources," says Mishi Faruqee, 30, who co-directs the program with Darryl King. In five months, 15 participants, all residents of South Brooklyn and all coming off at least a year in prison, have found their way to Developing Justice. They tend to be those who have neither other support networks nor an inclination to do more crime. "There's a lot of ex-offenders that don't need our services," says King. Those who do set personal goals in areas like education, family relationships and mental health.
The most common goal, and the hardest struggle, can be the most elementary: finding a place to live. Public housing, in New York and elsewhere, is often closed to those with a criminal record, and staying with family members can cost them their apartments. Landlords mistrust tenants who lack credit histories and employment records, and as King found out, even non-profit developers are reluctant to rent to ex-offenders. One woman entered Developing Justice considering giving her three children up to foster care. "I can live in the street," she told King, "but I can't bring my kids." Housing is, of course, the bread and butter of CDCs, and King and Faruqee have been able to find apartments for several participants in developments managed by the Fifth Avenue Committee. Similarly, the Committee runs two for-profit businesses that employ low-income residents -- a temp agency and an environmentally friendly laundromat -- and has coordinated job placement efforts for years.
Other goals are a little tougher. King describes one woman: "She was crying out, 'I can't seem to put my hand on this drug problem, I can't control it. I go back to what I know best.' I was there to help her make the phone call to the detox program." Developing Justice is building a base of resources, including treatment centers and professional counselors, to help the program participants. But sometimes life experience is, or has to be, enough. "I get a call once a week from some family in desperate need of help," says King.
He could also serve as a different sort of role model. King was head of a prison chapter of the NAACP and works with a group of offenders-turned-activists. His community involvement is clearly a model for other ex-offenders. Among the personal goals that Developing Justice participants can choose is community organizing and leadership development. "We want to try to show them that they have the ability to make a difference, with a pen, or with a march, or with a letter or phone campaign," says King, a critic of the current state of the criminal justice system.
But the Fifth Avenue Committee also works closely with various government agencies, including District Attorneys, police, and the jail system. "It is difficult to openly criticize the people who are providing your contracts," says Rickman, of Weed and Seed, another advocate of the Committee's programs. He thinks that as CDCs move into service provision, other groups will take on the watchdog function.
As CDCs become more involved in the workings of criminal justice, the danger is that CDCs themselves may be compromised. Nesbitt of the National Congress for Community Economic Development, which is helping to publicize the program, says she thinks CDCs will have an official role in monitoring the progress of parolees -- including reporting them for violations. But Faruqee says that she does not want Developing Justice to become an arm of parole or a mandated program. "Trust" and "Teamwork" are two of the principles listed in the Committee's contract between program staff and participants; they will be difficult to maintain if staff have the power to send parolees back to prison.
The program began with a $200,000 budget, to serve up to 100 people coming out of state prison and create a network of CDCs interested in community justice. (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Center for Crime, Communities, and Culture at George Soros' Open Society Institute, and the Public Welfare Foundation provided funding.) But foundations are unlikely to come up with the millions of dollars needed to replicate the program nationally, so linking with the criminal justice system may be the only way for CDCs to get funding to expand their programs.
The price is cheap compared to the per-person cost of incarceration, and none of the program's participants have been re-arrested. Nevertheless, lawmakers are unlikely to fund programs without making certain demands. One of those may be that CDCs take on a monitoring role if they get funding for work with ex-offenders.
Developing Justice has already begun to work with government: The New York City Department of Corrections recently gave a grant to the Vera Institute of Justice, to provide services to prisoners doing short stays in city jails. Developing Justice will be one of the sub-contractors providing after-jail services for 100 new people. Those who come to Developing Justice will do so voluntarily, and Developing Justice will have no enforcement role. But the Vera Institute's in-jail program will be mandatory for some prisoners.
Developing Justice is not alone. Nesbitt estimates that about 200 CDCs have programs specifically targeted to ex-offenders. "Ex-offenders can be either dangerous elements or they can be positive forces," says Rickman. "A lot depends on how they're dealt with upon their return to the community." So far, Developing Justice and other programs like it are providing a good model of how to help ex-offenders get back on their feet -- and how to fight discrimination in housing and employment. Not every ex-offender will be another Darryl King. But if Developing Justice and similar organizations get their way, far fewer need become another criminal.
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