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Exploring the Role of the Police in Prisoner Reentry
By NIJ - Jeremy Travis, Ronald Davis and Sarah Lawrence
Published: 10/01/2012

Police The past generation has witnessed a number of significant changes in the American approach to the twin challenges of reducing crime and administering justice. Arguably the two most important changes in the American criminal justice landscape have been the evolving role of the police and the use of incarceration as a response to crime, which brought with it the subsequent release of millions of people from prison. Much has been written about modern American policing and prisoner reentry individually, yet the intersection of the two has received relatively little attention. This paper explores this intersection and makes the case that there is a role for the police in the prisoner reentry movement.

An obvious place to begin is with the question: Why should the police care about prisoner reentry? We know that recidivism rates of people returning from prison to their communities remain frustratingly high, we know that people who cycle in and out of prison commit a disproportionate amount of crime, and we know that in a world of declining resources, police departments continue to be challenged to do more with less. For these reasons, among others, the police should be fully engaged in local prisoner reentry efforts.

Beginning in the 1980s, the nation embraced a new vision of the police as a problem-solving institution with an organizational goal of reducing crime. These crime reduction efforts have been marked by an explicit effort to engage community stakeholders, particularly in high-crime neighborhoods. Captured by the phrases “community policing” and “problem-oriented policing,” this new vision was embraced by police leaders, politicians and academics, promoted by a multibillion-dollar federal funding initiative in the 1990s, and heralded as an effective means for simultaneously bringing crime rates down and improving relationships between police and communities, particularly communities of color.

At about the same time, the nation began to increase its use of incarceration as a response to crime, ultimately increasing the incarceration rate fourfold. As a consequence, the number of people released from prison has increased significantly. These individuals return mostly to the same high-crime neighborhoods where the policing philosophy calls for community engagement. The new reality that large numbers of Americans have spent time in prison has given birth to a new focus on prisoner “reentry,” a policy conversation marked, just as with policing, by a pragmatic, problem-solving ethos, a federal funding initiative and a commitment to engaging community stakeholders in improving public safety outcomes.

It should be noted at the outset that, for many, this is an uneasy conversation across a deep institutional and cultural divide. Some police practitioners view their role as exclusively enforcers of the law. In this view, the relationship of the police to those in prison is limited: the police investigate crimes, arrest suspects and support the prosecution of criminal cases. Any governmental responsibility for returning prisoners to the community rests with parole and probation, not the police. Consistent with this view, expanding the role of the police to encompass even a shared responsibility for improving reentry outcomes would constitute inadvisable mission creep. On a deeper level, because the police are charged with protecting society against harm, some police find it difficult, perhaps inappropriate, to join those who champion the redemption of individuals who were convicted of crimes. In this view, the commission of crime that is sufficiently serious to warrant a prison term justifies continued vigilance against new criminal behavior, not the supportive “welcome home” offered by many organizations that work with former prisoners.

The challenges of distrust and limited role definitions hamper interest in collaboration on the part of reentry practitioners as well. Some believe that the police are part of a larger, oppressive, racist criminal justice apparatus that is singlemindedly interested in harassing young men and, whenever possible, arresting them to send them funding initiative and a commitment to engaging community stakeholders in improving public safety outcomes.

It should be noted at the outset that, for many, this is an uneasy conversation across a deep institutional and cultural divide. Some police practitioners view their role as exclusively enforcers of the law. In this view, the relationship of the police to those in prison is limited: the police investigate crimes, arrest suspects and support the prosecution of criminal cases. Any governmental responsibility for returning prisoners to the community rests with parole and probation, not the police. Consistent with this view, expanding the role of the police to encompass even a shared responsibility for improving reentry outcomes would constitute inadvisable mission creep. On a deeper level, because the police are charged with protecting society against harm, some police find it difficult, perhaps inappropriate, to join those who champion the redemption of individuals who were convicted of crimes. In this view, the commission of crime that is sufficiently serious to warrant a prison term justifies continued vigilance against new criminal behavior, not the supportive “welcome home” offered by many organizations that work with former prisoners.

The challenges of distrust and limited role definitions hamper interest in collaboration on the part of reentry practitioners as well. Some believe that the police are part of a larger, oppressive, racist criminal justice apparatus that is singlemindedly interested in harassing young men and, whenever possible, arresting them to send them to jail or prison, thereby stifling their chances for successful lives. In this view, collaboration with the police is tantamount to working with the enemy (Asbury 2011). In a less extreme stance, some reentry practitioners fear that involving the police in their work will only expose their clients to unnecessary surveillance, and that the “zero tolerance” stance of some police officials and departments is inconsistent with the view of the reentry process as one that often involves missteps, relapse and minor but perhaps excusable rule violations (U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs 2000).

Virtually every major national police organization — the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), the Police Foundation and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) — has begun to participate in the reentry conversation (see “Publications on Police and Reentry”). A survey of best practices by the U.S. Conference of Mayors revealed that prisoner reentry collaborations with local law enforcement agencies are becoming more common (U.S. Conference of Mayors 2009). Despite the foundation for partnership, these collaborative efforts are underdeveloped and the role of the police is evolving.

This paper is organized around two key elements. The first sets forth the basic parameters of the pres-ent-day reentry phenomenon in America, with a particular focus on two dimensions that intersect with the work of urban police departments: high recidivism rates and the concentration of returning prisoners in a few neighborhoods. The second explores two rationales for police involvement in prisoner reentry efforts: the promotion of public safety and the promotion of the legitimacy of the police. The Realities of Prisoner Reentry in America

Click here for the full 24 page paper.

Reprinted from
"New Perspectives in Policing"
U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Justice Programs
National Institute of Justice


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