One Opinion: A ‘Housing First’ Solution Could Actually Stimulate Homelessness

Ralph da Costa Nunez, PhD
President, Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness:

Recent weeks have brought devastating news for many of the shelters coping with a surge of homelessness in cities across the country: The federal funding they have relied on to house, feed, and care for some of the very neediest Americans is going away.

In New York City, well-established and respected shelter operators such as the Bowery Residents Committee, the Brooklyn Bureau of Community Service, and the Doe Fund are seeing their grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) slashed or zeroed out. The same is happening to Camillus House in Miami, Florida; to Vincent Village in Fort Wayne, Indiana; to the Center for Women and Families in Louisville, Kentucky, and to the Institute for Human Services in Honolulu, Hawaii.

What could explain HUD’s actions? It’s not that the problem of homelessness has gone away. To the contrary, it’s worse than ever in some places—with tent cities springing up in places like Los Angeles and Seattle, the mayor of Portland, Oregon, declaring a state of emergency, and New York City’s shelter population hovers near an all-time high.

Nor is there a sudden cash crisis in Washington. The grants were awarded through HUD’s $2.3 billion Continuum of Care program, which actually got a 5 percent boost in 2016.


Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

No, what changed was the minds of HUD policymakers. They have become believers in the philosophy know as “Housing First,” which holds that moving people into permanent, independent housing as quickly as possible is the best solution for homelessness. So they’re dramatically ramping up funding for programs that follow that approach, and cutting support for traditional shelters.

“The government is now just giving vouchers out, which puts people in homes and the government pays their rent,” Denise Andorfer of the Vincent Villages told the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel. “But the behavior doesn’t change and most end up homeless again.”

“While transitional housing programs play an important temporary role for people experiencing homelessness, permanent supportive housing has demonstrably better outcomes at a lower cost,” HUD spokesman Charles McNally told Politico New York.

But prioritizing what he called “evidence-based interventions like permanent supportive housing,” this year’s grants “should help New York serve more people experiencing homelessness, and with better results,” McNally said.

He acknowledged that shifting priorities could put some shelters out of business. “McNally said HUD would provide guidance to projects that weren’t funded, to help them wind down and determine how to move their clients from transitional housing into permanent housing,” Politico reported.

The apparent basis for calling the money shift “evidence-based” is HUD’s Family Options Study. Following more than 2,000 families in 12 communities over three years, it has been described as the largest-ever research project comparing the effectiveness of different approaches to homelessness. An interim report based on the first 20 months’ experience was published in July 2015.

But the study is only half-finished. And its complex methodology—which focused on what programs families were offered, as opposed to what they actually used—makes its findings difficult to interpret. Certainly they do not come close justifying HUD’s robbing-Peter-to-pay Paul policy.

The solution that came out looking best based on the study’s preliminary—repeat, preliminary—results was permanently subsidized housing, i.e., an open-ended commitment that government will pay a portion of families’ rent. Of course, that approach gets steadily costlier over time, meaning the cost-benefit analysis at 20 months could look very different at 36 months or 10 years.

Nor is a large-scale expansion of permanent housing subsidies realistically on the table. Federal funding for public housing and Section 8 vouchers has been effectively flat for years. The Housing First programs to which HUD is giving grants provide temporary rent support, typically for two years or less. The Family Options Study’s interim report determined that temporary rent subsidies failed to significantly improve the lives of families who were offered them. They appeared less expensive than some alternatives, but the savings diminished over time as families lost their apartments and slipped back into homelessness.

Here’s more evidence HUD should be considering: Under Mayor Mike Bloomberg, New York City experimented with an aggressive housing-first approach from 2005 to 2011, using rent subsidies to move 33,000 people out of shelters.

But two things happened: families who were not equipped to maintain a stable housing situation began to bounce back into shelter (the return to shelter rate climbed to 60%) and instead of going down, the city’s shelter census actually increased. Officials found that families who had been living doubled up with relatives or in substandard apartments saw what they believed was an opportunity to improve their housing, and entered the shelter system to secure their place in line.

If the Housing First approach had that effect in New York, could HUD’s increasing emphasis on the policy in recent years help explain the current surge in shelter populations across the U.S.?

HUD needs to remember that one size does not fit all. A rent voucher might well be the best solution for an otherwise self-supporting family that has suffered a temporary setback, such as an illness or lost job. But what drives most families into shelters are deeper-seated issues, such as a lack of education and employment skills, mental illness, substance abuse, and domestic violence.

A rent voucher by itself will not make those issues go away. Some families need the support, education, therapy, training, and safety that only transitional shelters can provide. Yet thanks to HUD’s policy, many of those safety-net organizations must now scramble for alternative funding or contemplate the unthinkable.

When will we understand that there never was—or ever will be—one simple path to ending homelessness? Its causes remain multifaceted, requiring a combination of permanent housing, transitional housing, and emergency shelters with requisite services to fight that battle.

Miami’s Camillus House stands as an example of a torn safety net. Shed Boren, Camillus’ executive director, is stunned:

I don’t know what we’re going to do to find the money to make up for this loss’ he told the paper’s editorial board. Camillus alone will lose 75 percent of funding for its Day Center, that represents $346,000 of the center’s $461,000 annual budget. The center is an oasis for those without a roof over their heads, a place where they can shower, find counseling and a mail center, in addition to finding a meal — more than 300 are served each day. The loss of HUD money, will derail the county’s master plan to do away with homelessness by December 2017. I don’t think HUD realizes how impactful this cut will be for Miami-Dade.

With examples such as this it is fair to say that HUD—in the name of housing the homeless—has paradoxically adopted a policy that could stimulate homelessness. By withdrawing the very funding that supports this nation’s homeless safety net, HUD is leading the nation down a perilous path.

Despite Four Supreme Court Rulings, Politics Determines if Juvenile Lifers Get Parole Chances

Almost everyone serving life in prison for

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

crimes they committed as juveniles deserves a shot at going home is the thrust of a series of Supreme Court rulings, the fourth and most recent of which was decided this year. Taken together, the high court’s message in these cases is that children are different than adults when it comes to crime and punishment—less culpable for their actions and more amenable to change. As such, court rulings have determined all but the rarest of juvenile lifers are entitled to “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

The court left it up to states how to handle this year’s new ruling but suggested parole boards were a good choice. “Allowing those offenders to be considered for parole,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in January, gives states a way to identify “juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity—and who have since matured.” Most states have taken this option, changing juvenile lifers’ sentences en masse from life without to life with the possibility of parole.

But prisoner’s rights advocates and attorneys have begun to argue that parole boards, as they usually operate, may not be capable of providing a meaningful opportunity for release. A handful of courts have agreed.

Last month, a New York state appeals court judge ruled that the state’s parole board had not “met its constitutional obligation” when it denied parole to a man who had killed his girlfriend when he was 16. Dempsey Hawkins is now 54 and has been denied parole nine times in hearings that, the court said, did not adequately weigh what role his youth and immaturity had played in his crime.

Also last month, a group of juvenile lifers in Maryland filed suit, arguing that not a single juvenile lifer had received parole in that state in the last 20 years.

The lawsuit says:

Rather than affording youth a meaningful and realistic opportunity for release…grants of release are exceptionally rare, are governed by no substantive, enforceable standards, and are masked from view by blanket assertions of executive privilege.

Similar suits are proceeding in Iowa, Michigan, Florida, Virginia and North Carolina, where a judge heard oral arguments in mid May.

Sarah French Russell, a Quinnipiac University law professor who studies juvenile justice, said:

There are just two relevant kinds of sentences: those that provide a meaningful opportunity for release and those that don’t. Sentences that are not technically labeled life without parole can deny a meaningful opportunity for release because of the procedures or criteria used by the parole board.

In almost every state, parole board members are political appointees with little incentive to release prisoners who committed violent crimes. Boards operate with wide discretion to make decisions for almost any reason, and in many states, their decisionmaking is shielded from public view and not subject to appeal. A recent analysis by the University of Minnesota law school found that parole release rates in many states remain stuck under 10%, even as the country searches for solutions to mass incarceration. In Ohio, 7% of hearings result in parole being granted. In Florida, the 2014 grant rate was 2%.

One common basis for parole denial is the seriousness of the crime. This may be an allowable metric for adult offenders, these lawsuits argue, but in light of the Supreme Court’s rulings, juvenile lifers must be judged by a different standard.

“No meaningful opportunity [to prove rehabilitation] can be granted where the only consideration at a parole hearing is the severity of the offense,” wrote attorneys for Blair Greiman, who was sentenced as a teenager in Iowa to life without parole for kidnapping and rape, then re-sentenced after the Supreme Court’s rulings.

At 16, high on horse tranquilizers he had stolen from the veterinary supply at his family’s farm, Greiman raped a woman, stabbed her, and left her for dead. Now 50, Greiman says he has a “simple desire to live a decent life and not be defined by the worst act of my life.” In prison, he has earned a degree, become a master woodworker, participated in counseling and treatment and published a novel, the lawsuit says. Yet, repeatedly denied parole because of the seriousness of his crime, Greiman “is effectively placed in the same situation as he was previously—a juvenile offender serving life sentences without eligibility for parole,” his lawyers argue. Fred Scaletta, assistant director of Iowa’s corrections department, said the board cannot comment on pending litigation. Since Greiman filed suit, the board has approved him for placement in minimum security, a step towards work release, and will review him again next year, Scaletta said.

A handful of states have implemented special parole board procedures for juvenile lifers. Massachusetts and Connecticut provide funding for attorneys to represent juvenile lifers before the board. The Massachusetts Supreme Court also said juvenile lifers were entitled to fees for expert witnesses and to appeal the outcome to a judge—all protections that adult offenders do not enjoy.

“In the case of a juvenile homicide offender—at least at the initial parole hearing—the task is probably far more complex than in the case of an adult offender,” the Massachusetts court wrote. Juvenile lifers must be given the chance to prove that their crime was committed, at least in part, because they were young—immature, impressionable, dependent on adults—but to do that requires gathering educational, medical, and legal paperwork, sometimes decades old, from behind bars. “An unrepresented, indigent juvenile homicide offender will likely lack the skills and resources to gather, analyze, and present this evidence adequately,” the court wrote.

California, Louisiana, West Virginia, and Nebraska have all passed laws providing new rules and procedures for parole boards to follow in cases of juvenile lifers.

In New York, attorneys for Mr. Hawkins are lobbying the governor to widen the scope of the court’s ruling in his case and put protections in place for all juvenile lifers facing the state’s parole board.

Even with special protections, lawyers and advocates say, whether juvenile lifers get parole is still largely dependent on the political atmosphere and whims of the board members. From 2013 until last year, half of juvenile lifers who went before the Massachusetts board were granted parole; that rate dropped to zero when a new board chair took over last September. Lawyers for the last 14 juvenile lifers to go before the board—all of whom were denied parole—say they plan to begin filing lawsuits.

New York Should Reinstate Successful “Work Release” Program

According to the American Bar Association, nycthere are upwards of 47,000 laws or local ordinances that penalize those with criminal justice involvement and restrict their full reintegration into civic and social life. The sheer volume of these restrictions may seem paralyzing to reformers – the Kafkaesque “re-entry” maze is certainly confounding to many people leaving prison – but we must take action.

Today, the two greatest challenges facing returning residents are affordable housing and lack of employment experience and marketable skills. For this reason, many state prisoners are released directly into New York City’s shelter system each week, and eventually come to rely on public assistance because of an inability to secure employment.

To that end, New York State must step up and do something substantial to increase reentry success. Reinstituting the work release program – one that has already been tested, and requires no additional research to justify – would address both issues simultaneously. By allowing people to acquire work experience and accumulate some savings to use toward housing expenses, we can provide them with the basis for successful re-entry.

Prior to the late 90’s, all New York State prisoners were work release eligible. If a person was within 24 months of parole eligibility, they could apply for work release. No distinction was drawn between violent versus non-violent charges. According to a March 28, 1994 New York Times article, citing New York State Correctional figures, there were 24,200 work release participants in 1993. By 2010, that number had declined to 1,910. During the 1990s-era hysteria around crime and punishment, then Governor George Pataki, greatly restricted eligibility to the program, by eliminating access to people charged with violent crimes. Ironically, those who may benefit most from the work release experience became excluded—long termers and lifers (people who are parole eligible but have a maximum sentence of life). Subsequently, Governors Eliot Spitzer, David Patterson and Andrew Cuomo have failed to undo these restrictions. This oversight betrays the recent rhetoric around reentry and second chances. National Reentry Week offers an opportunity for Cuomo, and the State Legislature to revisit these decisions and to afford more New York State prisoners access to this valuable, socially responsible program.

How it worked: A person within 24 months of parole eligibility would apply to the Temporary Release Committee at his/her facility seeking admittance into the program. If accepted, they would be relocated to one of various correctional facilities in the community in which they will be eventually paroled and would be required to seek local employment. Once employment was attained, they would report to work each day and return to the facility in the evenings to sleep. Often participants were allowed to stay with pre-approved family members three to four days per week, thus strengthening essential familial and community ties.

Wesley Caines, Re-Entry Coordinator at Brooklyn Defender Services, said:

This program was important prior to its restriction and can be again. First, it served as an opportunity for people, many of whom lacked full-time employment prior to going to prison, to gain practical experience in the workforce; it also allowed for the opportunity to save moneys which could go towards housing costs. It provided a transitional, supervised, landing back into society for men and women some of whom having been away for decades. Currently work release is available only to people convicted of non-violent crimes, most of whom are doing much shorter sentences and presumably are removed from the work force and family contact for a shorter period than those charged with crimes of violence.

While it is true that some prisons offer “programs” (required activities such as, vocational, therapeutic, educational mandates) that might seem at first glance to be job-readying, few of these actually foster marketable skills. Couple that with the average pay of 12 cents per hour, and, after basic commissary purchases, the average state prisoner has little or nothing left for savings. Most will be released back into society with little more than $40.00 (an amount extracted from any source of income a prisoner receives) and a bus or train ticket back to their home county. Those returning to New York City arrive at Port Authority—one block from the heart of Times Square. Housing options for people returning to their communities after prison are abysmal at best and nonexistent at worst. A criminal record restricts some people from residing in public housing, even with family.

Caines continues:

Recidivism is expensive financially and in human cost as well. In 2011, 23,710 people were released from state prison. Of that number, 10,007 eventually returned, or 42.2% (2,041 or 8.6% with new crimes, 7,966 or 33.6% for parole violations). Those of us in the reentry field are well aware that access to adequate housing and gainful employment represent the two strongest indicators for recidivism. It’s far cheaper, more efficient and moral to provide true rehabilitative opportunities for current marketplace job experience. Even with low numbers of participants, work release has shown to be beneficial to people seeking reentry and to local economies. From 1995 to 2010, prisoners participating in work release have earned $148,079,927.73, paid $40,856,515.59 in Federal, State and Local taxes, and inmates have been forced to save $48,277,965.01.

Work release then represents a clear, sensible opportunity for New York State to address two challenges to successful reentry. Let’s not forget that National Reentry Week represents people, our people who have paid us a debt and now must to be made whole. There are ample opportunities for local, state and the national government to be of the people and for the people—47,000 opportunities.


More Than 5 Million Kids Have Grown Up With an Incarcerated Parent

The Annie E. Casey Foundation analyzed 2011-2012 statistics nationwide and found that about 5 million children have grown up with a parent incarcerated at some point. “There are too many kids who are suffering because their parents are in prison, and they didn’t do anything wrong,” said Jim Munkres, spokesman of Idaho Voices for Children.

Lauren Necochea, director of Idaho Voices for Children,

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

said it is known that children having an incarcerated parent could have future issues with brain development and performance in school. “We know that when a parent is incarcerated, there is an impact on financial stability (in the family), and toxic stress has long-lasting effects,” Necochea said.

In the recent report, the Annie Casey Foundation stated:

We call on correctional systems, communities and state and local public agencies to help stabilize families and preserve their connections during incarceration — and successfully move forward once parents come home.

The foundation suggested that correctional systems should connect parents returning to the community with opportunities for employment and promote family stability when offenders are re-entering their family’s home.

Kentucky maintains the highest rate of kids with parents who have been incarcerated, at 13%, closely followed by Indiana at 11%. Next at 10% are the states of Oklahoma, Ohio, Michigan, New Mexico and Tennessee. The next worst group of states, with 9% of kids having a parent in the pokey (28% above the national average) are Arizona, Nebraska, West Virginia and Wyoming. The best state is New Jersey with only 3% of children having parents behind bars.

Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Casey Foundation, said.

Our nation’s over-reliance on incarceration has left millions of children poorer, less stable and emotionally cut off from the most important relationship of their young lives. We are calling on states and communities to act now, so that these kids — like all kids — have equal opportunity and a fair chance for the bright future they deserve.

In the last six months, the Idaho Department of Correction has released about 400 inmates onto probation and parole through efforts to reduce the prison population. The newly released inmates were placed back into the community due in part to the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. The initiative is a statewide effort to reduce the number people in prison for property and drug offenses and instead keep violent offenders in prison.

Most incarcerated parents in state and federal prisons nationwide are men, and about 45 percent of men age 24 or younger are fathers. For the same age group, about 48 percent of women in federal prison and 55 percent in state facilities are mothers.

The number of children with a father in prison increased by more than half between 1991 and 2007, and those with a mother behind bars more than doubled, according to the Casey Foundation.

Within the Idaho Department of Correction’s custody, about 83 percent of current female inmates have children. That’s about 1,200 of the approximate 1,500 females.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation stated in the report that single-parent household also struggle with poverty due to less income. They found that household income drops by about 22% when a child’s father is incarcerated.



Racism and Homelessness Deeply Intwined

Numbers show that African Americans and Native Americans end up in the streets and shelters in greater numbers and also stay there longer than their white counterparts. “Black folks are 12.5 percent of the general population but 27 percent of folks living in poverty and about 40 to 45 percent of shelter

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

populations,” Marc Dones, senior analyst for health policy at the Center for Social Innovation. “And the duration and episodes of homelessness tend to be longer and more frequent for blacks and Native Americans.” Dones’ figures reflect numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau.


“There’s also a connection to housing discrimination, employment and incarceration,” added Jeff Olivet, the Center’s president and CEO.

The Center for Social Innovation recently hosted a panel on the intersection of racism and homelessness in Boston and throughout the country. Joining Dones and Olivet at the panel was Monica Bharel, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Kicking off the panel, Olivet said:

When we talk about race and homelessness, we have to connect the two. Racism and homelessness are usually discussed as broad, separate issues, but it’s time to infuse a discussion of ‘deep poverty’ into dialogues on racism and to bring race into homelessness.

Dones noted that housing discrimination is embedded in over a century of racist policies, namely, redlining practices. He then showed a map of Boston that featured red splotches over “the areas you’d expect”—communities of color like Roxbury. The Federal Housing Authority wouldn’t back mortgages in those red zones, a practice which persisted until the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Dones explained:

Black people have only been able to get mortgages since the ’70s. Issues exist to this day—for example, blacks are shown fewer options than whites and are offered poorer closing deals.

Finally, Monica Bharel discussed the connection between housing and health:

Place matters more than anything else in health. Housing and income disparities lead to health disparities—and such disparities often overlap with the gap between whites and non-whites.

Bhurel used to work for the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, and while there, she learned the impact that place has on health.

“I would ask my patients ‘what do you need to stay healthy?’ And the most common answer was ‘a home,’” she said.

Olivet and Dones said that policy solutions do exist. For example, the Fair Housing Act has the authority to combat discriminatory housing practices. However, such regulations are totally unenforced. Presidents like Reagan and Nixon opposed housing integration, and Bill Clinton was forced to abandon fair housing goals in the wake of his impeachment scandals.

Dones explained:

It’s not a question of doing new things. It’s about enforcing what’s already on the books. Better communication and standardized language could help agencies coordinate and determine how to award money—specifically distinguishing funds for servicing and those for services. The government could use its money and resources to build housing while letting states and cities handle services.

Olivet mentioned that at the municipal level, communities can analyze numbers to determine the demographics of homelessness and see who’s not getting housing or resources.

The lack of enforcement and subsequent inequality led the New York Times editorial board to call the situation “Housing Apartheid, American Style.” The article concluded that:

In the absence of strong federal leadership, the task of securing fair housing has largely fallen to housing and civil rights groups, which have routinely taken cities and counties and the federal government itself to court for failing to enforce anti-discrimination laws

and that the feds should be ready to withhold money from communities that perpetuate housing inequalities. Currently, the Obama administration is trying to strengthen housing policies and combat discrimination laws.

Virginia and Other States Should Learn From Missouri’s Successful Juvenile Justice Approach


Richmond community organizer Da'Quon Beaver

Richmond community organizer Da’Quon Beaver

Missouri’s juvenile justice system has some of the lowest rates in the country for escape, suicide and return to crime. Missouri’s facilities are regional, giving youth the opportunity to be near their families and support networks. The centers are also much smaller, 30 beds on average, than the facility proposed for Chesapeake. Missouri’s facilities are staffed almost entirely by professionals who work directly with youth in addition to providing security, making them less expensive to operate.

The Missouri model is working for young people because it is not based on the outdated prison model. The new proposed facility in Chesapeake is based on the prison model, and so we are unlikely to see the changes we need. Virginia’s Juvenile prisons are failing all of us. The young people coming out of these prisons are worse off for the time they spent there. Their families are stressed and broken by the separation from their children and the financial burden of having to pay child support to the state for their incarcerated child. The communities to which these youth return are less safe.

Da’Quon Beaver, community organizer in Richmond with JustChildren, a program of the Legal Aid Justice Center, says:

I have seen these failures firsthand. I grew up in the juvenile prisons in Virginia after being convicted as an adult for a crime that I committed at the age of 14. I have seen my friends and peers incarcerated for years without visits from their families. I have seen my friends and peers languish in these prisons, receiving inadequate education and therapeutic services. I have seen my friends and peers, upon their return home, struggle to find jobs and make ends meet. I have also seen them end up in the adult prison system or, far worse, dead.

In his budget proposals this year, Gov. Terry McAuliffe promised a new approach to juvenile justice in Virginia. The governor and the General Assembly should be commended for investing in community-based alternatives to incarceration as a part of their budget. However, the governor and House Appropriations leaders have just reached a deal to build a new, 112-bed juvenile prison in Chesapeake, with 64 beds for teens committed to the state and 48 beds for locally detained youth. The General Assembly will vote soon on whether to approve the deal.

Unfortunately, this plan is just more of the same: more prisons for youth in Virginia, not a transformation of the juvenile justice system. Promises of natural light and more therapy cannot change the fact that the facility to be built, at a cost of nearly $40 million to Virginia taxpayers, will still be a prison. Children cannot grow and learn to be good employees, competent parents and productive community members in prisons. Prisons are an ineffective model for juvenile justice. We know there’s a better way.

Beaver continues:

Many of the young people in Virginia’s youth prisons could be better served by remaining in the community. In Roanoke, the Youth Advocate Program is working with high-risk youth and their families outside of correctional facilities. YAP works directly with the family to provide intensive, individualized, holistic care planning and management. An independent evaluation of YAP found that 86 percent of youth remained arrest-free while participating, and 93 percent continued living at home.

I congratulate the General Assembly for choosing to pay for the development of community-based alternatives like YAP in this year’s budget. The fruits of this investment should be realized before committing to build a new prison that may become unnecessary a couple of years down the road.

I am glad that building a new Virginia juvenile justice system is a priority. Investing in community-based alternatives to incarceration could truly be transformational for Virginia’s youth and our communities. However, providing money in the budget for construction of a new prison is a step in the wrong direction. It wastes an opportunity to change the lives of young people and their families and to make neighborhoods safer. Virginia should give the new community-based programs a chance before spending that money.


CA Gov. Brown Seeks to Undo His 40–Year-old Error Stifling Inmate Rehab

California Gov. Jerry Brown recently said that the initiative he is promoting for the November ballot would help fix a mistake he made nearly 40 years ago that has sent too many offenders to prison for decades with little hope of rehabilitation. The Democratic governor wants voters to approve a ballot measure that would increase early release credits for inmates who complete rehabilitation programs and allowing earlier parole for nonviolent felons.

He told criminal justice reform advocates gathered for a convention in Sacramento that the initiative would partly reverse the determinate sentencing system that he signed into law in 1977 when he was governor the first time. That law largely dictates criminals’ prison sentences, leaving little room for incentives that Brown says can improve inmates’ behavior.

CA Gov. Edmund G. Brown, Jr.

CA Gov. Edmund G. Brown, Jr.

“The problems that I create, I can clean up,” he said to applause. “And I’m cleaning this one up.”

The California District Attorneys Association is challenging whether Brown improperly amended his proposal onto an existing juvenile justice initiative in an effort to get his initiative out quickly.

The association also opposes the initiative itself, arguing that Brown is attempting to reverse numerous state laws and voter-approved sentencing enhancements, with few details or direction on how sentences would be reduced.

Brown said the existing system created two problems.

First, state lawmakers felt that no matter how long the determinate sentences are, they’re never long enough. He said that helped lead to more than 5,000 criminal laws augmented by more than 400 enhancements that can lengthen sentences for factors like repeat offenses or use of a gun.

Second, he said it offers little reward for inmates to improve themselves by participating in rehabilitation programs.

Brown’s proposal would allow the state parole board to consider releasing nonviolent inmates after they complete their primary sentence, without the added time from the enhancements. It would also allow state corrections officials to award earlier release credits to inmates who complete classes or treatment programs.

The move comes as a number of politicians across the country try to walk back decades of get-tough policies. Brown said those led to a surge in prison construction that still left prisons overcrowded until federal judges stepped in. His initiative would also write some of the judges’ sentence-reduction orders into state law.

Similarly, former President Bill Clinton said recently during a tour of three historic black churches in Harlem that his administration “overdid it” with the 1994 crime bill that he acknowledged put too many nonviolent offenders in prison for long sentences.

The state California Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether Brown can continue despite the district attorneys’ challenge.

Brown appealed for support at Monday’s convention as he and other initiative backers scramble to gather the nearly 586,000 valid signatures required for a ballot measure this year.

The two-day convention was organized by Californians for Safety and Justice, an arm of which backed Proposition 47, a successful 2014 ballot measure that reduced penalties for certain property and drug crimes.

Canada’s 5 Women’s Prisons Are Places of Despair–Especially for the Indigenous Majority

Over this time, some drastic changes have taken place in the way Correctional Service Canada (CSC) treats prisoners. Double bunking, mandatory minimum sentences and inmate pay cuts have turned the prisons into places of hopelessness and anger. Whereas the men’s prisons have become more violent as a result, the women’s have become places of despair and depression.


Writer Carol Findlay

There are five women’s prisons in Canada serving the five CSC regions. Because there are only five, inmates are rarely incarcerated close to home. Also, indigenous people are vastly over-represented in prison populations: 68 per cent of federally incarcerated female inmates are indigenous (Edmonton Institution for Women is more than 90 per cent).

According to Globe and Mail writer Carol Findlay, who has visited the prisons for seven years:

Our prisons are a continuation of the harm done to indigenous peoples through the residential schools. There’s a strong connection between this harm done and the violence, substance abuse and crime we see in the children and grandchildren of former students of the schools.

Incarcerating indigenous women, especially those who are far from their people and cut off from their culture, is a repetition of what happened in the schools. Few families have the means to visit. When a man goes into prison, often his wife or partner keeps in touch, and the family, although fragile, has a chance of survival. When a woman goes into prison, she is often the sole support to the family, and her children go into foster care. This is a huge issue for female inmates, often resulting in or exacerbating mental illness: About 60 per cent of women in penitentiaries are mentally ill. CSC administrators say it’s their biggest issue.

When you enter a women’s prison, you can feel despair, hopelessness and depression. It’s both palpable and horrifying. Cut off from their families and culture, and locked up in a ‘white man’s justice system’ makes these women ill, both mentally and physically. There aren’t enough psychologists to give meaningful talk therapy, so women are medicated. I have been in book club circles in which I am aware that most of the women are on mood-altering medications. I was told in one institution that as soon as a woman enters the system, she goes to a special unit where she is ‘stabilized’ with medication.

Early on in my visits to the women’s penitentiaries, I realized that there were no books written by, or relating to, the cultures of Canadian indigenous people in the libraries. My organization, Book Clubs for Inmates, then bought sets of books written by some of our great aboriginal writers, and these titles are on all our lists for the book clubs. Although we are pleased to help, and have privately donated funds, we wonder why we should have to do this?

One of the main issues relating to the prevalent despair of the women, Findlay believes, is that there is no meaningful job training inside. When they are released, the women can only get minimum-wage jobs, not enough to support their children and get them back. Thus we have here all the same marks of the residential schools: Indigenous people cut off from their families and culture, and families, which are already broken, unable to be reunited after incarceration.

Findlay concludes:

Indigenous peoples were badly served by Canada’s residential schools. Many of the schools’ children are now in the penitentiaries because of crime that is related to the destruction of their families by these very schools. Prisons further break down family life and exacerbate the cycle of poverty, crime and violence both on and off the reserves.

We all need to become more educated about what is happening to indigenous people in prisons, especially in the women’s prisons as these problems are the most extreme and damaging for future generations. If we don’t address these issues, we become complicit in the ongoing tragedy of the residential schools.

Wilmington NC Experience Found “Housing First” Preferable to Shelters

Katrina R. Knight, executive director of Wilmington, NC’s Good Shepherd Ministries, entered the homeless services arena in 1999, when most still thought emergency shelters were the best they could do by our homeless neighbors. Since the early 1980s they had developed homeless service systems nationwide where they brought homeless folks in and kept them for months or even years as — in the most well-intentioned way — they worked to address their often multiple challenges before deeming them “housing ready.”

The thinking went: “He won’t be able Good-Shepherd-Logoto hold onto an apartment with his health issues” or “She’ll have to complete our life skills program before she can live independently.” For shelter guests with the most serious physical and mental health challenges, there was often no vision of a return to housing that seemed remotely realistic. All the while, the homeless populations increased, shelters were added, and emergency stays grew longer and longer.

Knight recalls:

Like many homeless service providers, my thinking has changed radically since that time, largely due to the National Alliance to End Homelessness’ continual spotlight on Best Practices, and by the growing body of research pointing to more effective strategies for achieving transitions to housing. In the last 15 years we’ve learned a great deal about what works in terms of moving people from crisis to stability, and doing so in more expedited ways.

In a nutshell: we can keep adding shelters and shelter beds and allowing the ranks of homeless individuals and families to swell, or we can invest in housing strategies that shorten the length of people’s crises and return them more quickly to housing and stability in the community. It’s been a tough sell, even to the homeless services community itself. We’ve been challenged to rethink our entire approach to homelessness, to look at evidence-based strategies, and to reconsider our own role in addressing the issue — are we working to end the problem or simply managing it?

Here in the Cape Fear region, homelessness is first and foremost a symptom of poverty, an economic crisis brought on by the mismatch between our neighbors’ incomes and what they need to earn to afford housing in our wonderful but expensive community. Slowly, we’ve moved away from an almost exclusively shelter-based focus in favor of this housing + services direction. At first we were successful with the easier cases to re-house, like the two-parent family whose dad had been laid off but who could be moved to a new apartment when he located work again in short order.

She remembers that housing for the tougher situations, with folks who first needed help with the long and intimidating process of applying for disability assistance, took longer to figure out. Over time, however, Knight and her team have been able to drive down the overall size of our homeless population through this new emphasis on housing. The chronically homeless, disabled individuals who were outside her door every morning a decade ago are in homes of their own today. Still disabled, still low income, sometimes in need of a little handholding to navigate their medical and other appointments, but housed and living with dignity in the community rather than in the local shelter.

Knight continues:

As many as 50 new faces arrive at Good Shepherd every month, but they’re no longer 50 new guests in addition to a significant sub-population of chronically homeless individuals. In the process, our nightly census has decreased, from more than 100 men, women, and children when the Night Shelter opened in 2005 to closer to 60 every night now. It’s a testament to the regional effort around rehousing, and when the State asks whether we don’t now have too many shelter beds, at Good Shepherd and in the community, they’re right to ask the question, and to keep the pressure on us to redouble our rehousing efforts.

Moving homeless individuals and families to housing before first solving all of their problems seems counter-intuitive, even for folks who work in it every day. We have a surplus of available shelter beds — for men, for women, for families with children. What we do not have is a ready inventory of modest, affordable apartments for their transition out of homelessness (or to prevent their entering housing crisis in the first place).

Good Shepherd shelters the spectrum of neighbors who find themselves in housing crisis: parents with their children, veterans, single men and women, persons with disabilities, and individuals from varied religious, ethnic and racial backgrounds. Some have a mental health issue, but most do not. Some are struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, but most are not. In fact, sometimes it seems that the only thing they all have in common is their inability to access affordable housing.

After many years, the regional Cape Fear Housing Coalition seems to be gaining traction in its efforts to rally widespread support for increasing the affordable housing stock in its community. A Task Force on Affordable Housing currently in formation promises to bring key stakeholders from the business and building arenas to the table. The NC Housing Finance Agency continues to make important investments—through tax credits and construction loans—in private and public efforts to develop rental housing for the very low income.
Good Shepherd is working to develop SECU Lakeside Reserve, a modest housing development marrying affordable apartments with on-site services for homeless persons with disabilities.

Private individuals, congregations, and foundations are donating to this Best Practice strategy for moving those with disabilities out of homelessness. They see the importance of our existing safety net, including Good Shepherd’s shelter, but are responding to the opportunity to invest in real — and lasting — change for their homeless neighbors. Shelter is a response to homelessness. Affordable housing is a solution.

Knight concludes:

The momentum is there if only we commit to spurring it further. The time has come to gather our collective will to embrace these solutions and bring them to scale, so all of our Cape Fear neighbors have access to a decent and affordable place to call home. If ever there were a community with the heart and wherewithal to achieve such a thing, it is ours.

Proposed Georgia Budget Shifting Funds to Juvenile Community Programs Like Second Chance Court

Maggots in my Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Counties across Georgia have deployed an ongoing juvenile justice reform effort since 2013. Like states across the country, Georgia wants to keep teens out of prison and in their communities, with better outcomes for families, public safety and the state’s bottom line.

The Georgia Legislature passed the reforms unanimously in 2013, shortly after making major changes to the criminal justice system. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, a former juvenile court judge, has championed the changes.

The latest budget proposal from Gov. Deal calls for closing one long-term youth detention facility and moving more than $5 million into community-based alternatives. For example, the budget proposal includes $2.7 million for 40 “step-down” slots that help move kids from secure detention to residential facilities.

The Georgia reforms, rooted in an overhaul of the juvenile justice code, included a move away from locking up status offenders and the creation of a statewide database of juvenile justice referrals and results. The state also launched the Juvenile Justice Incentive Grants program to fund evidence-based programs in the counties that take their cues from programs like Second Chance Court.

Since 2013, the number of youth in secure confinement has dropped by 17 percent and youth awaiting placement has decreased by 51 percent.

Georgia’s reforms hit many of the marks for reforms rooted in evidence about what works, said Mark Lipsey, director of the Peabody Research Institute at Vanderbilt University. Lipsey has helped the state, and many others, evaluate how well programs are working. Lipsey pointed to the state’s decision to make the reforms in the statute, emphasize evidence-based practices and assemble strong leadership teams as signs of a very strong effort.

“I think what’s going on there is very much state of the art and quite remarkable,” he said.

When lawmakers were considering the reforms three years ago, researchers at the Pew Charitable Trust said the state could save $85 million during the next five years, largely from avoiding the costs of building two new secure facilities.

Now, as the number of youth in detention facilities come down, the state has the potential to take money they would have spent on running the facilities and put the funding into additional community programming, said Joe Vignati, deputy commissioner of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.

From fiscal year 2014 to the fiscal year 2017 proposal, funding for community services grew 17 percent, from $82 million to $95 million in a budget of $334 million. Meanwhile, funding for secure commitment grew 11 percent, from $85 million to $95 million and secure detention grew 12 percent from $107 million to $120 million.

Vignati said the costs of long-term and short-term confinement should continue to come down — and the savings redirected to community programs — as the state gets a handle on just how low the number of juvenile offenders they house can go.

The state also has steadily increased the amount of funding dedicated to Juvenile Justice Incentive Grants program, from $6 million in the fiscal year 2014 budget to $8.8 million in fiscal year 2016. In the participating counties, 1,666 youth had access to evidence-based programming in the second year of the program, up from 1,122 in the first. The programs all are ranked “effective” or “promising” on a federal registry to reduce criminogenic behaviors in juveniles and the counties have chosen programs rooted in individual, family or group therapy.

Overall, the counties saw out-of-home placements drop 54 percent in fiscal year 2015, compared with a 2012 baseline.

Steve Teske, the Clayton County juvenile judge who started Second Chance Court and has helped lead the charge for reform statewide, said the grants have been instrumental in his county. The Second Chance program already was underway and showing significant decreases in secure commitment when the incentive program began. However, the grant allowed the county to target the needs of youth who still were being committed, often for family dysfunction, Teske said. During fiscal year 2015, out-of-home placements dropped 63 percent in the county.

The Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, which is charged with making recommendations to improve both the criminal and juvenile justice systems, called for the next wave of juvenile reforms to focus on schools in its latest annual report.

Schools are one of the largest sources of referrals for the juvenile justice system. The proposed reforms aim to clarify the roles of schools and law enforcement on campuses.

A student who shouts a swear word should be disciplined at school, not accused of disorderly conduct and sent to the juvenile justice system, said Teske, who is a member of the council. Similarly, a schoolyard fight shouldn’t automatically bring assault charges.

“The overall objective is to stop criminalizing kids for what is typical adolescent behavior,” he said.

The report recommended that schools be required to develop and use a system of progressive discipline before a juvenile complaint is filed and that school systems enter into model agreements with law enforcement that clearly delineate how student behaviors will be addressed. The council also recommended measures to improve the procedural fairness of school disciplinary proceedings.

The report also calls for the state to restrict secure detention for anyone age 13 or younger, unless they are charged with a serious crime such as murder. Since the reform, the state has seen a spike in the number of younger children held in secure detention.

The council said:

By expanding the detention of younger children and exposing such youth to the trauma correlated with detention, Georgia, is, in effect, voiding the beneficial effects of juvenile reform for this most vulnerable population.