The blog of the Urban Institute
November 9, 2018

Empowering formerly justice-involved people, improving reentry reform efforts

The Philadelphia Reentry Coalition is in its fourth year of the Home for Good initiative. Through better systemwide coordination, the ambitious citywide effort aims to slash Philadelphia’s high recidivism rates for people returning from jails and prisons by 25 percent in five years. With rates as high as 34 percent in 2015, the city and the coalition had a lot of work ahead of them to reach their target by 2020.

In the past three years, Philadelphia has made great progress toward reforming its criminal justice system, which was plagued with incarceration rates well above Pennsylvania and national averages and growing racial and ethnic disparities.

The passage of criminal justice legislation, created in part thanks to grassroots advocacy and the election of a new district attorney, have added momentum to the city’s ongoing efforts to develop alternatives to cash bail, decriminalize low-level offenses like marijuana​ possession, and divert people charged with low-level crimes to specialty courts—just a few strategies among a long list of planned reforms.

All this bodes well for justice-involved Philadelphians, but as the Home for Good initiative enters its final two years, what more could be done to make reentry more successful and sustainable? Research and history illustrate the importance of including in the decisionmaking process those most affected by outcomes.

What’s happening in Philadelphia

The Reentry Think Tank, a local artist-advocacy group that builds the leadership capacity of the city’s returning citizens, has administered an ongoing survey to returning Philadelphians since 2016. It offers a helpful perspective as the coalition continues to implement the Home for Good plan.

More than a quarter of the 384 survey respondents stressed the importance of listening to community members’ voices to help others affected by incarceration. A core strategy of Home for Good is to “work side by side with people with lived [reentry] experiences.” The coalition highlights and supports its member organizations, such as Frontline Dads, the Center for Returning Citizens, and Healing Communities, all run by people who are formerly incarcerated.

The Philadelphia Reentry Coalition has also partnered with the Reentry Think Tank to consult on existing projects, facilitate relationships with government agencies and service providers to improve program design and policy, and engage other coalition members in efforts to focus resources on those most affected by incarceration.

How formerly incarcerated people are shaping justice policy

While people with lived experience are frequently at the table, this is just the beginning. Positioning people exiting jails and prisons as experts is important because, as one survey respondent wrote, “lawmakers…most times don’t experience what we do.”

Other cities have used this strategy at the get-go, from conceptualizing to implementing reform. People affected by the justice system were involved in ban-the-box legislation in California and successfully applied pressure on the New York City mayor to commit to closing the city’s notorious Rikers Island correctional facility.

At both the federal and local levels, governments are recognizing and investing in the expertise of those with lived experience through fellowships that employ formerly incarcerated people as advisers and decisionmakers.

What this could mean for reentry reform in Philadelphia

Many models show how formerly incarcerated people and others in communities most affected by the justice system can lead reentry reform.

Community-driven investment can direct resources to community priorities for reentry and other safety efforts. People with lived experience in the justice system can also be credible messengers to assist others when they return home.

And communities can consider crafting a reentry strategy using the tenets of participatory justice, a process that must include a range of community voices affected by the challenges of reentry, not just a few cultivated representatives.

A strong commitment to including those affected by incarceration in reentry reform could bring together communities, their returning residents, and local government, which could heighten civic engagement, improve collective efficacy, and have a positive impact on reducing recidivism

As Home for Good enters its final years, Philadelphia has an opportunity to pioneer and sustain its participatory approach to developing and implementing strategies to help formerly incarcerated citizens successfully and fully reintegrate into society.

A coalition meeting. Photo courtesy of the Reentry Think Tank. (An earlier version of this caption mistakenly credited the photo to Philadelphia Reentry Coalition.)


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