Women’s Re-entry Court Program Provides Alternatives to Prison for Non-Violent Offenders

by Cara on October 19, 2010

in class and economics, courts, human rights, law enforcement, race and racism, violence against women and girls

Today, the LA Times has a really interesting profile on the Second Chance Women’s Re-entry Court program, a rehabilitation program and alternative to incarceration for women who commit non-violent crimes. The program is one of the first in the nation to focus on women in the criminal justice system:

Thirty miles east of Tynan’s courtroom, the women of the Re-entry Court program are housed in a Pomona drug treatment facility for women called Prototypes.

The complex has the look and feel of an elementary school, with bright-colored murals, playgrounds and dirt plots sprouting gardening projects. The dorms are painted in pastel shades, with the occasional motivational quote taped onto the wall.

Here, the women are referred to as clients or patients rather than defendants or inmates. Binders and book bags take the place of handcuffs and jail scrubs, and women shuttle between therapy, life- and job-skills classes, chores and support group meetings. Mothers are reunited with their young children and given counseling and parenting classes.

Behind closed doors, the path to recovery is slow and painful as women learn to open up about their past. Some lived on the street for decades, hustling or resorting to prostitution for the next fix. Many had their children taken away and had felt, at one point, that it would be best if they stayed away. All had addictions, often compounded by mental illness and histories of trauma and abuse.

“There are a few of them who come in so broken and so sick that you’re amazed that they’re alive,” said Nancy Chand, a deputy public defender who acts as the attorney for most of the women. “They come to realize that it wasn’t their fault that they were hurt. As that shame starts to come off, the confidence comes out.”

Their time here, a minimum of six months but longer for most, is designed to prepare them for another shot at life — be that a job at McDonald’s, a new relationship with their children or paralegal school.

I’m sure that the program inevitably has its flaws — indeed, it seems to me to still rely too heavily on an authority deciding who is and is not “deserving” of help and support. But so far, it is proving overwhelmingly successful.

And compared to prison, this is much, much closer to what the response to crime should be. Right now, the overwhelmingly dominant method of dealing with crime in the U.S. and many other nations has nothing at all to do with either preventing crime or reforming perpetrators, and has everything to do with punishing and further oppressing already marginalized populations. The evidence shows that violent authoritarianism convinces very few people to “turn their lives around” — and gives even fewer people the tools with which to do so. And it isn’t really even designed to. We know that prisons are a revolving door. And far too few people are asking themselves how to change that, rather than shrugging their shoulders or counting the profits the prison industry makes them.

Crime doesn’t come from nowhere, and neither do prison populations. Most crime is rooted in pervasive structural problems such as poverty, addiction, prior abuse, an inability to access mental health services, and systemic discrimination. There’s a reason that poor populations, people of color, trans* folks, etc. are highly overrepresented in the prison system.  No, it’s not because marginalized people are more likely to have criminal inclinations. It’s because marginalization leads to the kind of circumstances in which crime seems like a genuine and/or unavoidable option. And because when we design a system that is set up entirely to punish people, it’s inevitable for said system to draw on oppressive ideas about who is most deserving of punishment.

And issues like prison rape are a huge problem, in very large part, because of attitudes that people who have committed crimes are deserving of crushing state authoritarianism, rather than compassion. Prisons are so full because we respond to addiction as a crime and a choice rather than a disease, and because we respond to crimes stemming from addiction with handcuffs and a locked door instead of with treatment. We remove people from their communities, separate them from their children, and place them in abusive environments, and then ask ourselves why they can’t function non-criminally once they are released. The answers are largely right in front of us, and we refuse to look at them because we’re still more wedded to the idea of making people “pay a price” than to the idea of human worth or even the goal of community safety.

Contrary to what you’ll hear many people argue, it’s certainly not about rehabilitative programs being too expensive:

The treatment, currently funded through a grant from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and donated services from Prototypes, costs about $18,000 for each woman per year. But compared with keeping them in prison and their children in foster care for years, the state is saving millions of dollars, the program’s organizers say.

Indeed, the state is apparently saving around $29,000 per woman per year.

Now, I’d personally rather spend more to get real results and avoid subjecting human beings to violence at the hands of the state, anyway. If re-entry programs cost more than incarceration, I’d still support them.

But they don’t. And I’d wager that the real reason that this myth about the high cost of such programs persists is because of how the money is being spent. The grumbling about inmates who have cable television tells us this much. We’re fine spending tens of thousands of dollars per inmate every year if it’s to lock them up in oppressive conditions, put them at risk of beatings and rape, feed them substandard food, and deny them adequate medical care. Spending less money to treat these same people like human beings of value and worth, though? It’s considered too much, because that, these people are seen as not deserving.

These programs aren’t a simple fix for all of society’s problems. They don’t address the issues that cause people to enter the criminal justice system in the first place. They might help individuals to work their way out of poverty, but they don’t address why so many people are poor to begin with. They may help individuals recover from addiction, but they don’t address how addiction starts. They may provide counseling to deal with the trauma of abuse, but that doesn’t stop victims from being raped, children from being beaten, slurs from being shouted on the street, or teenagers being kicked out of homes. They don’t even begin to look at how to deal with violent perpetrators. Further, issues like addiction have no one quick solution, and people often relapse. And as I’ve said, I’m sure that the Women’s Re-entry Court program specifically is far from perfect in terms of how it does what it does, and leaves many avenues for valid critique wide open.

But such programs are a start, a movement in the right direction. One action can’t adequately respond to centuries of abuse, oppression, and structural violence overnight, but that doesn’t make each part of the solution any less necessary.

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{ 5 comments }

1 Jeannette October 19, 2010 at 3:57 pm

I am definitely an advocate for humane treatment of prisoners, and I agree that non-violent offenders are more in need of treatment than they are of authoritarian punishment; however what’s missing from this picture is how we should treat violent offenders. I think it would be a mistake to say that violent offenders are merely a product of marginalization, especially in the case of sexual predators who literally perpetuate oppression in the form of sexual violence. A recent news story that angered me covered Coalinga State Hospital in CA which spends a LOT of tax-payer dollars to house sex offenders in a swanky facility. It seems perverse to me that that money is going to help offenders instead of victims (disclaimer: I work for a rape crisis center that is badly in need of funds for programs). So my question is, where do violent criminals fit into this picture? How do we treat them humanely but still hold them accountable for the hurt they have caused? http://www.insideedition.com/news/5082/controversial-sex-offender-hospital-costs-taxpayers.aspx

2 C October 20, 2010 at 4:38 pm

I agree with Jeanette-I’m sure there is a valid answer to the question, but I don’t know it. Where do you put the people who are a danger to society? *Puzzles*

3 Katrina October 21, 2010 at 3:43 pm

Maybe I’m being naive, but I don’t see why the same wouldn’t work for violent offenders. I would feel better about a violent rapist being placed in a rehab center that gives him (or her) access to anger management courses and sensitivity training. Is the person violent and angry because he or she has a personality disorder? Maybe just needs some therapy? Now, there are people who just can’t be helped, such as sociopaths. In that case, I still think a rehab like center would be better than prison. At least it would be more focused on trying to fix whatever problems causes the violence outburst instead of putting an adult violent offender in a 5-10 year time out.

Especially since the stigma of being in prison makes finding a job after the sentence is served almost impossible. The more violent the crime the more neccessary it is to help make the person less violent instead of more violent. Now, I’m not saying a female violent offender who killed an abusive huband and another female violent offender who killed someone during a bank robbery would benefit from identical treatment. But I don’t see why rehab-based care in quite and peaceful settings wouldn’t work for both cases. When the answer to, “What do we do with the violent ones,” becomes, “We should really get around to helping the violent ones end their violent behavior,” I think there will be a lot fewer repeat offenders. And even if it doesn’t at least the Re-entry court programs for violent offenders will cost less than jails for violent offenders. I see it as win-win for all types of offenses.

4 Cara October 21, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Yes, what Katrina said. This is a topic I still struggle with and don’t have answers for, and I’m much more comfortable talking about non-violent offenders for that reason. But I once had a conversation with bfp on this topic, and she said somethings that stuck with me, which I will try my best to paraphrase and put in my own words now.

Basically, when we talk about this topic, we almost always do so from the point of view of the offender, what is most humane for the offender, etc. It’s not that these questions don’t matter — no one deserves to be put into a violent system where they can’t be kept safe — but that we neglect the fact that offenders aren’t the only ones that the current system is hurting. Right now, it’s not working for victims, either. Right now, for example, this system is not even remotely working for victims of rape. Few rapists are convicted. Even those victims whose rapists are convicted are re-victimized by the system in order to get there. And just as importantly, by putting rapists in an environment where they are likely to be either raped or given an unlimited supply of captive victims to rape themselves, all putting them in prison does is teach them to be better rapists. Not to not rape.

I mean, almost everyone who goes to prison will eventually get out. This is as it should be. Again, I sure as hell don’t have the answer as to what exactly this looks like, but the question needs to be focused around this truth — if almost all offenders are going to be released back into society, shouldn’t that time be entirely focused on readying them for that reentry in a way that will make everyone safer rather than less safe?

5 Carmen Taylor Jones October 25, 2010 at 1:12 pm

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