Friday, April 10, 2009

Being a Lever in a Dark Place

Citizen Hope assembled a fascinating panel on Tuesday night at Hastings for a “Conversation on Re-Entry.” The conversation’s starting point was recidivism and re-entry, and San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris began by described several of her initiatives aimed at combating recidivism. “Back on Track” targets young (18-30) nonviolent first-time offenders, allowing them, after they’re arrested, to opt into a training program in lieu of an entry of judgment. “Back on Track” participants must have a job or be in college in order to graduate, and the program works “across agencies” to achieve this, bringing together the Housing Department, Child and Family Services, Health and Human Services, the DA, PD, and Court. 

The program is still in its nascence, and so there are lots of questions about its efficacy: is it scalable? Right now it targets a population that self-selected to succeed (if a participant makes any missteps, he is sent back into the regular criminal justice process.) But it's an important policy innovation because it reflects a growing understanding of how connected recidivism and re-integration are with problems like joblessness and inadequate access to services. 

Harris herself represents another important kind of policy innovation, though, a theme which she sounded as she explained her decision to become a prosecutor, rather than following the more traditional path of the civil rights advocate to the public defender’s office. In lots of counties, programs like “Back on Track” never get started because the District Attorney, with his eye on his conviction record for the next election, doesn’t want to cooperate in a program that takes people out of the normal channels of criminal process. People like Harris are important because they are willing to reconceive their roles and the set of incentives and constraints that define them. Conviction records aren’t the only way to show you’re doing a good job as a law enforcement officer – indeed, they may be a remarkably bad indicator of whether you’re improving public safety. 

Panelist Lateefah Simon echoed this theme towards the end of the evening. Simon, who worked for Harris for four years in the DA’s office, and has a powerful way with words, exhorted the audience of law students and community members to become “a lever in a dark place.” In other words, if a system is the cumulative effect of many little decisions made by people in the course of their routines, then a shift in the kinds of experiences and perspectives those people are considering as they go about their jobs can have a huge impact on the success and widespread expansion of a program like “Back on Track.”

Citizen Hope is a social networking organization focused on political activism. The panel featured SF DA Kamala Harris, Jakada Imani, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Jessica Flintoff, program coordinator of the Safe Communities Reentry Council, Lateefah Simon, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, and moderator Steve Ngo of the San Francisco Community College Board. 

1 comment:

Jerry Jarvis said...

This is assuming that education is the answer. Education can be the answer if only provided at the willing age. But how do you re-educate a old soul?