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October 14, 2007 - Washington Post (DC)

Column: Political Odd Couple Pushes Prisoner Reentry Breakthrough

By Neal Peirce

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Who'd ever thought it? The United States' most imaginative prisoner reentry program isn't flourishing in some left-leaning coastal city, but rather in the solid heart of America: Wichita, Kansas.

And the program, with immense promise to start reducing burgeoning prison populations, is being pushed by as odd a political couple as you'll ever find -- Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, Democratic Governors Association chair, and Sen. Sam Brownback R-Kan.), Republican U.S. Senator, Christian conservative leader and now presidential candidate.

Brownback, a sponsor of the federal Second Chance Act to stimulate state reentry programs, startled a group of elected officials and community residents in Wichita by saying: "I want to see recidivism in this nation cut in half in the next five years, and I want it to start in Kansas."

Sebelius, her state corrections director and other cabinet officials have taken up the cause, sponsoring efforts to help inmates get off the familiar treadmill of arrest, incarceration, release, then repeated arrest and yet more prison time. More eligible prisoners are receiving needed mental health and drug counseling, training on how to apply for a job, tips on finding housing and other challenges on their release.

But beyond state officials, other actors are spurring the Kansas reform effort.

Eric Cadora and Tony Fabelo of the New York-based "Justice Mapping" project came to Kansas with maps showing that the vast majority of Kansas prison admissions -- and prisoner reentries -- occur in a narrowly-defined set of economically blighted, overwhelmingly minority neighborhoods in the state's major cities.

The most dramatic problem neighborhood: a bleak ribbon of territory just northeast of downtown Wichita, which had been a poor but thriving African-American area in the 50s and 60s but then declined sharply. Significantly, the maps showed the neighborhood isn't just a hot spot of prison admissions: it's also off the charts in dilapidated housing, disastrous school scores, levels of foster care and welfare spending.

People "get" such maps, says Cadora, who coined the term "million dollar block" -- a single census block where government is spending at least $1 million a year to incarcerate people. The most obvious conclusion: that government agencies need to get their act together, break down their organizational "silos" and figure out how to help the ex-prisoners and their families start stabilizing their lives.

Gov. Sebelius and the legislative leaders, noting Kansas prison population had risen 25 percent in a decade, with projections of another 25 percent rise looming in the next years, turned to the Council of State Governments, Justice Center. The expanded prisons, the Kansans said, will cost $500 million to build and operate. We can't afford that. What can we do?

Michael Thompson, the Center's director, honed in on Kansas, problem: two of every three prisoners, he found, had been on parole, probation or community supervision. Some were being recommitted for a new crime, but close to 90 percent for some parole or probation violation. They tested positive for drugs, they hadn't gotten a job, they failed to pay child support, or failed to show up for an appointment with their case officer.

Indeed, says Thompson, "The state was abetting a vicious circle -- cutting training or drug treatment programs in prison to find funds to add more prison beds, accelerating recidivism back to prison."

Kansas officials are at work reforming that system statewide, aided by Thompson and his colleagues and foundations ranging from JEHT to Soros to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

And now there's another breakthrough experiment brewing for Wichita's most troubled blocks. With a clear need for quality affordable housing, Richard Baron of McCormack Baron Salazar -- America's premier developer of mixed-income housing areas in troubled cities -- was called in.

Baron told local officials that scattered housing units wouldn't achieve enough. You need a master planned neighborhood, with housing and improved schools, parks and other facilities, an environment in which ex-prisoners can blend in, receive services they need and have a chance for success. Officials were skeptical at first, but visited Baron's highly successful St. Louis projects and came back convinced.

Not yet officially confirmed, the Baron project would also seek participation of Wichita State University, which is directly beside the neighborhood. Some major Wichita employers are showing more willingness to hire the former prisoners. America's first remade inner city neighborhood that welcomes and assists, rather that jettisoning people who've done prison time, may well emerge.

But what about the politics here? Aren't conservatives the "lock-,em-up" crowd? Well, Brownback (who occasionally spends a night in prison to gauge inmate culture) talks of young men "who get separated, isolated, start using drugs or alcohol, often break away from their family and start into criminal activity.... Yes, many have committed horrific crimes. They owe a debt to society. But they need connections. They need people to invest in their lives."

Invest in their lives? From a fervidly "pro-life" politician, shouldn't that make sense?

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