Our City Reintegrated Ex-Offenders and Reduced Jail Populations. This is How We Did It.

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In celebration of National Reentry Week, Charlottesville, Virginia Councilmember Kristin Szakos shares her city’s success story about helping convicted felons reintegrate into society – and reducing the city’s jail population in the process.

Ex-offenders stand the best chance of successfully reintegrating into society when they are provided with the right tools and opportunities, such as the chance to build up their training and work history and earn the respect and recommendations of their employers. (photo: downtowncharlottesville.net)
Ex-offenders stand the best chance of successfully reintegrating into society when they are provided with the right tools and opportunities, such as the chance to build up their training and work history and earn the respect and recommendations of their employers. (photo: downtowncharlottesville.net)

This is a guest post by Councilmember Kristin Szakos.

This spring, the City of Charlottesville, Virginia, is sponsoring its first Reentry Resource Fair. Vendors, employers, service providers and city agencies will set up tables and displays, hoping to attract the attention of the members of the public who have come to the event. Their intended targets, men and women, young and not so young, all have one thing in common: they have, at some point in their lives, been convicted of a felony.

The Resource Fair marks another milestone in Charlottesville’s evolution as a “Second Chance City”. Over the past six years, Charlottesville has been working to make sure that folks returning from incarceration are welcomed to reintegrate and become contributing members of the community. What’s remarkable is that almost everyone – the Chamber of Commerce, judges and prosecutors, City Council – is on board.

A crisis was the catalyst for building the consensus around Charlottesville’s commitment. In 2010, the community was facing the need to spend several million dollars for a new wing for its overcrowded regional jail, as well as the skyrocketing per-diem costs of increasing numbers of inmates. Certified for 329 beds, the jail was regularly reporting daily populations approaching 600, and continued growth seemed inevitable.

Instead, the City and neighboring Albemarle County, who jointly run the local jail, applied to be part of the National Institute of Corrections effort to form an evidence-based decision making initiative to look at ways to reduce the community’s reliance on the jail and improve public safety. Originally targeted specifically at controlling recidivism, the effort has grown to include prevention, diversion, housing, jail programming, mental health care, reentry preparation, and reintegration into the community for returning citizens. It has become the model for a new statewide evidence-based decision making practice. Subsequent state and federal grants have helped the community share data, institute risk assessment practices and create innovative programs in the jail and in the community.

Programs in the jail itself where inmates can earn educational credits, get work certifications like small engine repair, and participate in therapeutic group work helps them return with skills and strengths they may not have had before. A six-month re-entry employment program with the City Parks and Rec Department gives returning residents a chance to earn money while learning job skills and earning a good reference to future employment. The removal of criminal record disclosure on City job applications, the coordination of services, and attention to the needs of families provide the supports that help returning citizens succeed.

And it’s working. This year, the average daily population at the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail is 459, and it continues to drop.

Why Charlottesville is a second chance city

Saving money isn’t the only reason Charlottesville has committed to being a Second Chance City. Almost everyone our community incarcerates ends up coming home eventually. Of course, our hope is that they will reconnect with family, get a job, and never offend again. And that is the intention of the overwhelming number of people who are released from incarceration. But even in the best cases, there are lots of challenges. People leaving incarceration often are returning to families where they have done harm, and relationships have been damaged. Parents and children have been traumatized – not only by the crime that led to incarceration, but by the separation itself. Returning family members may be behind on child support and court cost payments, banned from the public housing neighborhood where their families live because of their criminal record, and unable to convince employers to take a chance on a former felon.

Frustration and self-doubt, while natural under these circumstances, don’t always lead to the best choices, and that is often when people violate their probation or re-offend and end up re-incarcerated – re-traumatizing their families, and making it even harder to be successful the next time.

Two key responsibilities of cities are providing for public safety and for the education and welfare of children. If we help former felons engage with their families, with employment, and with the community, they are less likely to re-offend and more likely to set a good example to their children and to other young people. What’s more, children with both fathers and mothers in their lives do better in school, are less likely to live in poverty, and are less likely to become involved in the justice system themselves.

So Charlottesville remains deeply committed to being a Second Chance City – one that recognizes the potential of its returning citizens to become contributing members of the local economy and assets to our community. Our belief in them helps to make their potential a reality.

Click here to review more information on the elements of Charlottesville’s Second Chance Policy.

cover-dem-kristin-szakos-headAbout the Author: The Hon. Kristin Szakos, councilmember from Charlottesville, Va., serves on the Council on Youth, Education, and Families. Councilmember Szakos also contributed to the Advisory Committee for NLC’s new City Roles in Reducing the Overuse of Jails for Young Adults initiative part of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge. Kristin also serves on the Board of the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail Authority. Follow Kristin on Twitter at @kszakos.