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An Unusual Partnership in Criminal Justice

In a political climate where the partisan divide makes allies and alliances more predictable every day, last week’s USA Today shed light on a rather unusual set of allies: cops and individuals recently released from prison. But the idea is not new to the Brennan Center. Since 2007, we have been building a similar partnership.

  • Garima Malhotra
July 6, 2010

In a political climate where the partisan divide makes allies and alliances more predictable every day, last week’s USA Today shed light on a rather unusual set of allies:  cops and individuals recently released from prison.  As USA Today reports, re-entry programs in Michigan and Rhode Island pair corrections officers with inmates before and after their release in an effort to aid them with their transition back into society, with the ultimate goal of preventing future crime.

It is surprising that such a logical approach is untraditional – and it is not surprising that it is effective. For example, in the western region of the Michigan Prisoner Re-entry Initiative program, only 11% of the program’s 713 participants have been convicted of new crimes in last four years – compared to 70% nationally. It goes without saying that job training, mentoring, counseling and support help the transition from prison to community and prevent recidivism.  

But the idea is not new to the Brennan Center.  Since 2007, we have been building a similar partnership.  After a national convening of law enforcement and criminal justice allies, we created a Law Enforcement & Criminal Justice Advisory Council with whom we partner on both on state and federal reform of criminal disenfranchisement laws.  Current members include police chiefs, prosecutors, heads of probation, parole and corrections departments, and presidents of leading professional law enforcement and community supervision associations. 

These law enforcement professionals recognize that restoring the right to vote after release from incarceration affirms the returning members’ value to the polity, encourages participation in civic life, and helps to rebuild the ties that motive law-abiding behavior.

The Brennan Center Law Enforcement Advisory Council has been enormously effective.  The American Probation and Parole Association (APPA), the National Black Police Association (NBPA), the Association of Paroling Authorities International (APAI) and the American Correctional Association (ACA) have all passed resolutions in favor of voting rights restoration.  Members of the law enforcement community have supported campaigns to restore the right to vote to people with prior convictions across the country, including in Kentucky, New York, Rhode Island, Washington and Virginia. In December 2009, high ranking law enforcement and criminal justice professionals wrote to members of Congress urging them to sign the Democracy Restoration Act, legislation that seeks to restore the right to vote to individuals upon release from prison. And just recently, a group of law enforcement submitted an amicus curiae brief in a case that challenges Washington’s felony disenfranchisement law, arguing that the laws impede rehabilitation and successful reintegration. 

When testifying recently before a United States House Judiciary Subcommittee, APPA Executive Director and Advisory Council member Carl Wicklund stated, “One of the core missions of parole and probation supervision is to support the successful transition from prison and jail to the community.  Civic participation is an integral part of this transition because it helps transform one’s identity from deviant to law-abiding citizen.”  Providence Police Chief Dean Esserman, another supporter of Rhode Island camping and Advisory Council member, explained, “denying the vote to people who completed their prison sentence disrupts the re-entry process and weakens the long-term prospects for sustainable rehabilitation.”  And Gil Kerlikowske, now the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, wrote when he was Chief of Police in Seattle, “voting is an important way to connect people to their communities, which in turn helps them avoid going back to crime. . . . We want those who leave prison to become productive and law-abiding citizens. Voting puts them on that path.”

In fact, the relationship between Rhode Island Department of Corrections Director A.T. Wall and Andres Idarraga, described in the USA Today article, started well before Andres asked Director Wall for a recommendation to Yale Law School.  Andres was one of the primary spokespeople for the Rhode Island Right to Vote campaign, and he is one of 15,000 Rhode Islanders with a conviction in their past who had their right to vote restored when voters approved a ballot referendum in November 2006.  Rhode Island became the first state to approve Brennan Center’s model bill that not only restores voting rights to individuals upon release from prison, but requires the Department of Corrections to notify individuals in writing about their right and provide voter registration forms.  It was through his work with the right to vote campaign that Andres caught the attention of Director Wall, who had endorsed the campaign and is currently a member of our Advisory Council.

This partnership between corrections/law enforcement individuals and people coming out of prison is exciting and promising.  It shows an increasing commitment within the criminal justice community to help address some of the systematic problems that result in some individuals’ repeated contact with the criminal justice system. Hopefully, this collaboration among unusual allies will continue to grow across the country, and the intuitive link between civic participation and successful re-entry will no longer be ignored.