Department of Corrections and Community Supervision

Remarks by Commissioner Brian Fischer
The Culture of Change: Evaluation, Collaboration & Reformation
Centerforce Inside/Out Summit
Westin Airport Hotel, San Francisco, California
October 26, 2009

Prison systems across the country are changing, but for real change to take place, we need to start with a new view of incarceration and re-entry. We need to view the criminal justice system as an interrelated whole, a process by which offenders enter, are incarcerated, treated, released, and supervised. We need to view the criminal justice system as a human services system that should be treatment-based, with emphasis on education and personal skill-building.

What is even more critical is the need for a philosophical approach to the concepts of public safety, offender treatment and re-entry. That philosophy needs to address five major components if treatment, reentry and reintegration are to be successful: legislation, prison treatment, non-profit associations, community involvement and media acceptance.

Legislation

Crimes and punishment are defined by legislative action. We need to ask questions such as: have we created reasonable laws? Are we sending the right people to prison? Are our sentencing laws helping or hurting society and the offender? Have we properly defined public safety in terms of release policies?

Right now we have laws and sentences that are so complex that few if any people truly understand them, let alone use them in a consistent manner.

On the other hand, there are a number of proposals that are being considered to deal directly with re-entry. They include creating a Certificate of Restoration instead of Certificates of Good Conduct and Certificates of Relief, which the public does not completely understand. Other ideas include making it easier for offenders to correct misinformation on their rap sheets, giving parolees the right to vote, and removing laws that allow employers, housing authorities and colleges the ability to deny jobs, housing and programs to ex-offenders because of their criminal background. Assisting offenders in obtaining Medicaid coverage upon release is already working as intended. There is even an attempt to give release credit to victims of domestic violence when the crime is directly related to abuse.

Prison Treatment

I prefer to talk in terms of treatment and learning new skills. Treatment has to be tailored to the individual and his or her needs and ability to learn. It also means acknowledging the problem of mental illness, the sex offender, the medically ill and the addicted person. And it means going beyond traditional academic and vocational programming and helping offenders learn skills like parenting and conflict resolution. It means dealing with issues such as domestic violence and recognizing the gender-specific needs of female offenders. Treatment should be centered around the offender’s needs with his or her input and acceptance.

For me, education is the base upon which other skills are learned. The better educated people are, the more skills they can develop.

What is missing, and has to be developed, is how to better connect prisoners with their families, particularly their children. Families and offenders experience a serious disconnect when the offender goes off to prison and the family stays home. The physical distance between the family and the offender only adds to the problem of isolation. This disconnect becomes even more critical when the offender gets ready to leave, only to discover that both he and his family have changed. Family counseling services, the least prevalent program component provided in most systems, are sorely needed.

Non-Profits

Non-profit service organizations have at least two special strengths: the ability to move in and out of the prison or Parole settings, and acceptance of ex-offenders as treatment agents. Their strength is also in their willingness to bridge the gap between prison and the community, and between the ex-offender and Parole. Such groups, especially where they use ex-offenders as peer counselors, demonstrate at least two concepts to offenders in prison: bringing into prison a sense of the outside world, and offering ex-offenders as role models and mentors to those inside - especially when combined with re-entry programs.

One positive approach in New York has been the development of re-entry units in four correctional facilities in close proximity to urban areas where most offenders return. Contracts with non-profits create an inside/outside approach to re-entry. Offenders meet and sign up with representatives of non-profits ready and willing to assist them upon their release.

The greatest improvement we have seen in dealing with offenders with mental illness who are being prepared for release is contact with ex-offenders who have their own histories of mental illness and who come inside and provide those about to leave with advice, assistance and understanding.

Non-profit organizations are also in the best position to meet the challenges of family counseling. Being in the community, non-profits are in the best position to assist the criminal justice system by serving as the principal connection between offenders and their families at both ends of incarceration.

Community / Society

Everyone accepts the notion that ex-offenders need jobs, housing and family support, but there are laws that make it difficult for ex-offenders to get a job, return home to their families and access treatment. When the community is not receptive, then re-entry is often beyond the reach of too many returning ex-offenders.

People like to say that re-entry starts when an offender enters the system. That might be true, but if there’s no community support upon the offender’s return, then all the treatment and planning is not enough.

One effort that has proven effective in New York is the creation of several county re-entry task force committees and centers. Seed money was provided by the State, and I have deputy superintendents assigned to each county committee to establish working relationships with service providers and to educate the community about what corrections has to offer.

Media

Public opinion and public understanding of the criminal justice system is too often misled and confused by the media. Negative articles and editorials, along with many television programs, portray offenders, the prison system and sometimes even the courts in the worst light. Like the community at large, the media needs to be more willing to support our efforts in treatment and re-entry and view the criminal justice system’s goal as providing public safety.

Summary

While I would like to say that New York has solved all its prison and reentry problems, the best that I can say is we are moving in the right direction.

Legislative changes have led the way in many areas, like early release, limited credit time and the end of the Rockefeller drug laws, which sent offenders to prison for life or extremely long periods of incarceration. New laws have been enacted or are being supported to remove the outdated legal and bureaucratic restrictions that have made it more difficult for ex-offenders to obtain various licenses, return to public housing, and access medical treatment. The ability to ensure ex-offenders are enrolled in Medicaid upon their release has been a major accomplishment in assisting in re-entry.

Prison and Parole treatment services have moved away from the traditional protocols and into research-based approaches such as motivational interviewing, graduated sanctions for parole violators and risk-needs assessment and treatment planning.

Non-profit service organizations are now in every correctional facility and have partnered with Parole services in the community. Their input into treatment and supervision has achieved great success in providing meaningful connections between offenders and corrections and Parole. These same non-profits have also led the way in encouraging the community and even legislators to accept and understand re-entry and the role they can play.