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Thereís more to justice than prison
Carcieri and some other Republicans are starting to grasp the importance of helping ex-offenders to become productive members of society

SINCE GETTING OUT of prison a few months ago, Nancy has been coming almost daily to the Family Life Center in South Providence to attend group counseling sessions and to generally "find out who I am," she says, "and where I want to go." A Newport native, Nancy has been struggling with crack-cocaine addition for the better part of the last decade, shifting in and out of prison multiple times. She learned about the Family Life Center (FLC), a resource for ex-offenders, through a counseling program during one of her stints at the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston.

Nancy (not her real name) seems to be in her mid-thirties. Her face is weathered and she frequently grasps the hand of Sol Rodriguez, executive director of the FLC, during our conversation. Nancy shakes sporadically and repeatedly comes close to tears while discussing her attempts to break the cycle of getting out of jail, starting to use drugs anew, and ending up back in prison again. She has been struggling for a long time to overcome her problems and to resume her life, find employment, and reunite with her 11-year-old daughter, who is in the care of relatives, since the girlís father has also been in and out of jail. It is not clear when, or if, Nancy will succeed. "Everyone has the best intentions," Rodriguez says. "But those canít be realized without support." Ex-offenders in Nancyís position, she adds, need "non-conditional support," particularly understanding that "you may need a hand up a number of times before you can stand on your own."

Peter Slom, 49, found himself in a spot similar to Nancyís when he got out of prison in 1992 after serving two years for delivering cocaine. Slom, currently a supervisor at the Rhode Island Training School, the stateís juvenile correctional facility, has worked steadily since then. He also lends his support to a host of prisoner-reentry causes, including an ongoing effort to restore voting rights for non-violent ex-offenders without multiple arrests. (Rhode Island has one of the strictest disenfranchisement laws in the US, barring those convicted of a felony from voting while they remain on probation or parole.) "Iíve got a great state job, all this responsibility," Slom notes, "but I canít vote. I think itís kind of absurd." As it stands, Slom, who was arrested in 1990 and will remain on probation until 2008, will have to wait until 2018 to apply to have his voting rights restored.

Nancy, Rodriguez, and Slom are all part of what some see as a nascent sea change, locally and nationally, related to the issue of recidivism, the tendency of many ex-offenders to relapse into criminal behavior and return to prison. The singular focus on imprisoning offenders, born from the "tough on crime" ethos that has defined the American judicial and political landscapes since the Nixon administration, has become untenable ó largely because of the cost for states ó and officials at all levels of government are beginning to recognize this. Republican Governor Donald L Carcieri has even called himself "the reentry governor."

Elsewhere, the inchoate shift can be seen by how the minimum sentences for many of the infamous Rockefeller drug laws were significantly shortened by New York officials in January. In California, where the state prison system experienced the largest expansion in the country in the í80s, a new law began diverting some low-level, non-violent drug offenders in recent years from prison into community-based treatment programs.

These states are at the fore of a movement that has not yet reached far beyond the countryís coasts. But while President George W. Bush and drug czar John Walters have publicly opposed liberalizing drug policy, the federal budget released in February hints at change, shifting some funding from law enforcement to money for vouchers for treatment programs. At a congressional hearing on drug policy in February, Walters admitted the flaws of a policy focused on "chasing primarily small people, putting them in jail, year after year, generation after generation." Instead, he suggested, the country should be trying to "break the business. Donít break generation after generation . . . of young men, especially poor, minority young men in our cities, and [put] them in jail."

This shift has sparked some enthusiasm, but not without appropriate skepticism. The challenge can be seen in Rhode Island by how the Family Life Center, which opened in 2003, still struggles to secure sufficient funding. Carcieri has pledged to "help former inmates at the ACI more successfully reintegrate into our communities," and in his January 26 remarks on the budget, the governor said this could be accomplished, "by investing $300,000 in prisoner reentry programs, and by completing design work for a Prisoner Reintegration Center." The governorís proposed budget contains $132,292 to help start a 175-bed center, which the state Department of Corrections would like to open in the fall of 2006. The federal government is expected to cover 90 percent of the $13 million cost.

The Family Life Center, however, currently receives nothing from the money allocated by Carcieri for reentry programs. (Most of its funds come through a federal grant.) Although she remains hopeful that the FLC will get state backing in the future, Rodriguez bemoans how most people still "donít see this population [of ex-offenders] as a deserving population."

Slom is "guardedly optimistic," although, as he points out, "At this point, nothing much has really changed. Itís all things that could potentially change." The passage of voting-rights legislation remains far from certain, even after revelations that more than 15,000 Rhode Islanders, including 20 percent of the stateís black electorate, are disenfranchised. For Slom, the measure of success is not difficult to envision: "When I see my voting rights reinstated," he asserts, "then Iíll know weíre heading in the right direction."

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Issue Date: April 15 - 21, 2005
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