Returning Citizens and Criminal Justice Reform

By Aaron Gottlieb, Assistant Professor at the Jane Addams College of Social Work, University of Illinois at Chicago. Email: agott19@uic.edu

On July 12th, I had the good fortune of attending a screening of the documentary, Returning Citizens, directed by Saffron Cassaday. The film is much different than most other documentaries that explore criminal justice reform because it examines reentry after prison instead of the front end of the criminal justice system (i.e. the impact of the drug war and the rise in incarceration rates). Returning Citizens focuses on Washington, DC and follows the stories of a few individuals who recently came home from prison and the community advocates dedicated to supporting them. For those who have limited exposure to criminal justice issues, Returning Citizens does an outstanding job of humanizing individuals who are formerly incarcerated by documenting: the lack of opportunities available to individuals prior to entering prison; the challenges returning citizens face when they reenter the community; and, perhaps most notably, the positive impact many returning citizens are having on their communities.

The film’s humanization of all kinds of returning citizens, not just those who were convicted of a nonviolent offense, is especially critical because the public tends to have much more negative perceptions of those convicted of violent crimes (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1745-9125.12145/full). Nearly half of people in prison at any given time are convicted of a violent crime (https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2017.html), and like people convicted of nonviolent offenses, these returning citizens often simply want to rejoin their family, become self-sufficient, and help others in the same boat.

While she was introducing the film, Ms. Cassaday mentioned that she hoped her film would serve as an effective advocacy tool for individuals fighting for criminal justice reform. Although prior research has found that self-interest is more effective at changing public attitudes towards sentencing reform than humanization (http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0011128716687758), this film is incredibly important for both reformers and policymakers because it clearly illustrates that it is not enough to solely focus on rolling back sentencing policies. It is crucial that reformers and policymakers work to make sure that returning citizens are positioned to successfully reenter the community. When individuals are given opportunities in the way of employment, housing, education, and support services, lives can change. And, when lives change, families heal and entire communities can be transformed. Without support and opportunities, individuals are practically forced back to unhealthy relationships, unsafe behaviors, and sadly, criminal activity in order to survive.

The importance of providing returning citizens with opportunities is especially critical to remember as members of congress consider The Reverse Mass Incarceration Act. Introduced to the U.S. Senate by Cory Booker and Richard Blumenthal, the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act aims to incentivize states to safely reduce incarceration by providing federal grants to states that reduce incarceration by at least 7% and have crime rates that are no more than 3% higher than the previous year. If it were to pass, by tying funding not just to prison population reduction and but also to crime rates, the Act would essentially encourage states to prioritize helping returning citizens so that they do not recidivate. To have insight into how to effectively do this, state policymakers would do well to watch this film so that they can have a firmer grasp of the challenges that returning citizens will face, as well as the strengths that they will bring to their communities.

One simple policy prescription that could potentially help many states meet the goals of The Reverse Mass Incarceration Act is to end felon disenfranchisement. Currently, returning citizens are only eligible to vote immediately upon returning to the community in 16 states and the District of Columbia (http://www.sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Felony-Disenfranchisement-Primer.pdf). As the film makes clear, voting is empowering for returning citizens. By granting returning citizens the right to vote when they come home, states can send the message that their lives matter and that they deserve the rights of citizenship that all other citizens enjoy.

On July 25th, the film, Returning Citizens, will be available on iTunes, Amazon and VOD platforms. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the issues facing individuals who are formerly incarcerated and what it takes to make it after prison.