It was not long ago that local leaders concerned about the number of men and women being released from the state Department of Corrections dubbed Pierce County the state’s “dumping ground” for criminal offenders. Turns out one should never underestimate the power of a waste-management metaphor.
In response, the Legislature passed the “county of origin” law to divert the flow of felons into the South Sound because we carried more than our “fair share” due to the disproportionate number of area reentry programs.
Times change, though, and nearly a decade later political momentum around long-needed criminal justice and correctional reform continues to accelerate. One need look no further than the declaration of this week as our first National Reentry Week to see both how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.
Even as the country begins to recognize the mounting damage associated with what a 2012 New Yorker article called “the caging of America,” one salient point often goes unmentioned: Some 95 percent of the more than 2.2 million people behind bars will one day return to our communities.
When considered in context, the numbers are sobering. At the national level, more than 10,000 people return each week from federal and state prison – or more than 600,000 per year. At the local level, more than 11 million Americans are booked in and released from county jails every year. Here in Washington, some 8,000 men and women are released annually from the DOC, a number that does not include federal prisons and county jails.
In Pierce County terms, that’s a lot of dumping!
The reality, however, is that upon return these men and women encounter a complex web of barriers connected to the stigma associated with a criminal record. From the labor and housing markets to financial credit and tuition supports, these sanctions limit access to future opportunities and significantly restrict one’s ability to reintegrate into community life.
They also undermine public safety by institutionalizing inequity, burdening already strained families and pushing individuals – many with significant risks and needs – into increasingly desperate circumstances. Longstanding racial disparities in the criminal justice system ensure these challenges are experienced most acutely in communities of color.
For these reasons and more, the designation of National Reentry Week by the U.S. Department of Justice constitutes another important step toward raising awareness and mobilizing the political will to achieve a fairer second-chance society. In Pierce County, we shouldn’t let the moment pass.
For starters, let’s lose the waste-management metaphors. Language that may have suited the political needs of yesterday undermines the promise of tomorrow, especially for a nation grappling with the soul-crushing weight of mass incarceration. Put simply, returning citizens have much to offer, and programs that effectively facilitate their transition are assets that all communities should support in the interests of strengthening families and improving public safety.
Second, let’s own the fact that, along with other Washington communities, we have at times willingly embraced “not in my backyard” sentiments. While we may have felt justified in our stance, the effect of our actions only intensified the local stigma that comes with a criminal record, making it much harder for men and women to reenter our community successfully.
In reassessing our collective posture, we should also note all the ways the tide around us is turning. The Legislature, for example, just established a statewide reentry council to foster collaboration between victims, the criminal justice system, service providers and impacted individuals. The council will make policy and funding recommendations with the goal of enhancing public safety through improved reentry outcomes.
The DOC has also come to the table with the creation of a Reentry Division toconsolidate and coordinate efforts. What’s more, a number of jurisdictions, including the City of Tacoma, have passed “ban the box” initiatives to reduce employment discrimination against individuals with criminal records.
So as we embark on the first ever National Reentry Week, let’s not dismiss the significance of the fact that some 65 million Americans, or some 20 percent of the population, have a criminal record. We probably all know, or know of, someone trying to rebuild their life post-incarceration. As such, we in Pierce County have a stake in whether we uphold second chances or capitulate to the exclusionary politics that restrict where and how people reenter society.
Times change, and we should too.
Steve Woolworth of Tacoma is vice president of treatment and reentry for the nonprofit Pioneer Human Services.