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Starting the reentry process at the beginning.

With large numbers of offenders returning to communities from prisons throughout the United States, offender reentry dominates corrections agendas. Accepting the premise that it's just a matter of time before "parolees" re-offend endangers public safety and is far too costly. In addition, communities need to come to terms with this issue and accept the fact that returning offenders, in most cases, were once and are now again citizens of the community. They are not aliens who have arrived from another nation called "Prison." Formerly incarcerated offenders who do re-offend not only endanger public safety but also account for a large portion of the criminal justice budgets in our communities.

In progressive criminal justice systems, the reentry process begins when an offender commences his or her period of incarceration. This is an improvement from some systems that do not focus on reentry until the inmate is ready for discharge. However, the reentry process should start even earlier--at the plea bargaining/sentencing stage, when interactions between the district attorney, defense counsel and the judge take place. Even though plea bargaining is an integral part of the criminal justice system, we need to ask the tough questions of whether it either enhances public safety or helps the offender reintegrate into society. Does a bargained term of five to seven years serve public safety any better than the original proposed sentence of eight to 10 years? If you look closely, you can see that plea bargaining may not enhance public safety or even save taxpayers money by reducing the number of trials because repeat offenders also tie up court calendars. The impact on public safety and the costs to the community for detection, apprehension, prosecution, incarceration, victim services, public defender fees, etc. are significant when formerly incarcerated offenders commit new crimes. And when new crimes are committed, they contribute to clogging the court system, which negates the impact of disposing cases through the plea bargaining process.

Most of us will accept that the purpose of a prison sentence is punishment and/or to prevent further criminal activity during the period of incarceration; however, punishment is sometimes ineffective, and incapacitation is usually a temporary solution to a long-term problem. Enhancing public safety and having offenders adopt law-abiding lifestyles needs to be the overriding concern for the criminal justice system. Using plea bargaining to expedite cases through the court system may essentially be counterproductive to these goals--unless we use plea bargaining to enhance the reentry process.

Successful offender reentry needs to begin at the plea bargaining stage, when the offender faces a sentence. It is at this point that defendants have an opportunity to show the district attorney and the judge how public safety can benefit or be better served by a reduced sentence in which the offender will serve a more efficient and effective period of incarceration. In essence, the defendant would deliver a reentry plan to the court that would demonstrate how he or she would effectively use the period of incarceration and subsequent community supervision as an opportunity for behavioral changes that support a law-abiding lifestyle.

At sentencing, convicted defendants have an opportunity to appeal to the judge for leniency. Such pleas are usually based on remorse, extenuating circumstances or the defendant's good character before the crime. However, defendants seldom are required to tell the court about how they will correct their criminal behavior so they can be safely released to the community. Most prison sentences are two years or less; therefore, it is essential for a defendant to start a reentry plan as soon as possible. It may require time to find the proper programming in the correctional system and determine the proper program durations and dosages for behavioral change in such areas as cognitive restructuring, alcohol or chemical dependency treatment, and anger management. Given this time frame, it makes sense to connect the offender with the proper level of correctional programs that have counterpart programs in place in the community so as to provide a continuum of services.

Other critical elements of the reentry plan that can cause problems upon release, such as housing, medical/mental health care needs and family reunification, can be addressed at the plea barging/sentencing stage. If these elements are addressed early on, it can reduce releasee problems and avoid needless delays caused by program eligibility rules and reestablishing family connections, and better his or her chance for success. When the focus is on public safety and improving the opportunity for an offender to live a law-abiding lifestyle, it is easy to view the plea bargaining/sentencing process as the starting point for reentry.

For many offenders, there is really no cognitive link between what they did wrong and the consequences imposed on them. Most criminal thinkers, when asked why they are in jail, will say, "Because I got caught." What message do we send to the offender when we plea bargain a sentence without demonstrating what the sentence should mean to them and the community? The term "bargaining" itself implies that someone is getting a "good deal" in exchange for something else. Especially when an offender is of the mind set that "every day off the sentence is one less day in prison." This is coupled with the notion that, while inside, the offender's focus usually switches to doing only the programs needed to make parole. Thus, the goal of program participation is making parole, not being successful in the community. Does anyone believe this process will really change criminal behaviors? The message we really want to send at plea bargaining is: "If you demonstrate your intention to fix yourself up, a lighter sentence can be considered." Our system needs to emphasize that the most important thing an offender can do while incarcerated is work to abandon criminal behaviors and lead a law-abiding lifestyle.

It is understood that some offenders will agree to do almost anything to reduce their sentences. Plea bargaining alone rarely sends any positive messages to offenders, and for that reason, we need to alter our present system. Beyond a judge chastising offenders for the results of their criminal offenses (i.e., "I hope you have learned from your mistakes."), there seldom are messages relayed regarding a pathway to a law-abiding lifestyle. Criminal justice leaders need to restate the purpose of incarceration and make it clear that the main purpose is to provide offenders (at least those who are inclined to do so) with opportunities for positive change. Offenders need to know from the very beginning of the process that, regardless of their present state of motivation, they will be held accountable for their proposed reentry plan. This process will get the defendant thinking about what he or she should do to reenter the community. We need to make sure the offender understands that prison is not the end of the road, but rather the beginning.

Skeptics should consider that even defendants who create a reentry plan solely to shorten their sentences are still beginning a process of cognitive behavioral change. Developing a believable plan for a law-abiding lifestyle forces them to identify behaviors that support community reentry. When the message extends beyond punishment and requires adherence/accountability to a personal reentry plan, the result is more likely to achieve a positive behavioral change.

While starting the reentry process at the plea bargaining stage might make perfect sense to corrections professionals, what does it mean to district attorneys, some of whom have to deal with overwhelming case numbers? Will requiring a reentry plan back-up cases further or result in additional trials? Well, the answer should be no. As mentioned earlier, every one of the offenders who does not return to prison saves the jurisdiction money. Also, the fact that he or she is not reentering the criminal justice system means the district attorney's office will not have to prosecute again, reducing criminal caseloads. District attorneys have also asked, "What if offenders don't adhere to the plan?" The answer is centered on the concepts of accountability and cognitive behavioral change.

Accountability plans that are not followed are addressed at a minimum of five levels. The first is with the corrections counselor at the prison; the second is with the parole board; the third is with the institutional parole officer; and the fourth is with a parole officer in the field. Ultimately, a fifth point of accountability will come into play if the offender re-offends and is prosecuted again. At that point, the defendant is held accountable for the previous reentry plan, and at the time of plea bargaining or sentencing for the new crime, the failure of the offender to comply with his or her reentry plan can be considered by the district attorney's office and the judge. When offenders are held accountable for compliance with their reentry plan and sanctions are imposed throughout the process, offenders will clearly understand that nonadherence can cause them to suffer continual and progressive consequences--ultimately, no plea bargaining and higher numbers in the sentencing process for future offenses.

We all know that punishment alone seldom teaches offenders the lessons they need to live law-abiding lifestyles. Evidence-based practices support cognitive behavioral interventions since they are most likely to achieve the best results for positive behavioral changes. By making reentry a key factor in the plea bargaining and sentencing process, we help offenders focus on what they need to do to lead a more productive life. Shorter plea-bargained sentences that result from a feasible reentry plan get offenders thinking about the connection between changing their lifestyles and freedom. Crucial to improving the success of reentering offenders is a plea bargaining process that requires an offender to work with his or her lawyer (in conjunction with corrections and a community reentry coordinator) to develop a reentry plan. If your jurisdiction is serious about increasing public safety and offender success through the reentry process, it should consider starting the process at the plea bargaining/sentencing stage.

Joseph J. Marchese, president of J.J. Marchese & Associates Inc., formerly served as deputy director of criminal justice and director of the NYS Prisoner Reentry Project for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.
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Title Annotation:Speak Out
Author:Marchese, Joseph J.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Oct 1, 2007
Words:1691
Previous Article:Coming to terms with prison growth.
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