Last month, Attorney General Josh Shapiro said something a lot of the previous inhabitants of his office would never have said. “For too long, we’ve relied solely on incarceration to prevent crime and violence,” he said at a press conference along with Governor Tom Wolf to announce the statewide Pennsylvania Reentry Council (PRC). “ “The approach over the last few decades has simply been to lock people up. And the truth is, we do our fair share of locking people up. But we cannot arrest our way out of this crisis.”
The crisis Shapiro refers to is our statewide recidivism rate. The percentage of released inmates who commit new crimes or are sent back to prison for parole violations is over 60 percent; last year, of Pennsylvania’s 49,301 inmates, nearly 75 percent were considered either high or moderate risks to reoffend. Given that 90 percent of those in prison will eventually return to their communities, it’s clear that the arrest, incarcerate, and release model has become little more than a revolving door. That’s why the PRC was formed, the first statewide effort to help former inmates adjust to life outside of prison.
In Philly, we’ve just had an election for District Attorney in which the candidates, emphasizing reforms like eliminating cash bail and not prosecuting lesser crimes, sounded like they were running for public defender instead of the city’s top law enforcement office. To be clear, the reforms the DA candidates touted were all reasonable, in and of themselves. But missing was an overall vision that connects protecting law-abiding citizens to those reforms. Listening to Shapiro last month, I discerned a different emphasis: He was talking about reform in a way that links it to safer streets. During a 45-minute phone conversation to discuss the challenges of reentry reform, I began by referencing the Philadelphia DA race and expressing my concern that a “soft on crime” approach had suddenly become fashionable nationwide among vote-seeking prosecutors.
Shapiro: I read your series on the DA race and thought it was very interesting. I want to be really clear: I’m tough on crime, but I believe you also have to be smart on crime. When you have a recidivism rate like ours, that’s a high fail rate, and you need to do something about that, for three reasons: To insure the safety and security of the community, to protect taxpayers, and to try and improve the lives of returning citizens. That’s just good sense.
My theory is that we have to reform our criminal justice system while still being tough on criminals. Let me give you an example. The number one killer in Pennsylvania is heroin. Well, since I became Attorney General, we’ve locked up three drug dealers every single day, and we’re charging them with tougher crimes. If your drug dealing results in a death, we’re putting you away for 20 to 40 years. That’s not soft on crime. But on the flip side, once you’ve served your time, you’re a returning citizen, and we need to do right by you by making sure you have access to the tools you need to succeed when you get out—so you don’t end up right back in jail.
LP: Before running for AG, you had never been a prosecutor before. I’m wondering if that has made it easier to look at criminal justice with fresh eyes?
JS: I’m looking at it with realistic eyes. As Montgomery County Commissioner, I oversaw the prisons. Nearly 50 percent of our inmates were on psychotropic medications to treat mental issues, or had drug and alcohol issues. One of the first things I saw was that we did very little to treat them and to try and give them the skills they’d need when they got out. I tasked our team with breaking down the major barriers to reentry and we put a program in place that included more intensive drug and alcohol treatment, job training, parenting education, and anger management.
LP: Did you look at best practices across the nation?
JS: We looked at some best practices, but a lot of it was just common sense. We were also one of a handful of counties nationwide to get a grant from the Obama administration to focus on reentry reforms. And guess what? Our recidivism rate dropped from 60 percent to 17 percent.
LP: So now you’re seeking to do the same thing, statewide? Tell me about the work of the Reentry Council.
“We’re locking up three drug dealers every single day, and we’re putting them away for 20 to 40 years if their dealing results in a death,” says Shapiro. “That’s not soft on crime. But once you’ve served your time, you’re a returning citizen, and we need to make sure you have access to the tools you need to succeed when you get out—so you don’t end up right back in jail.”
JS: We’ll be coordinating efforts among all stakeholder groups. We’ve identified 21 local reentry coalitions that we’ll be working with, along with reentry service providers and state agencies like my office, the Departments of Corrections, the Board of Probation and Parole, and the state Commission on Crime and Delinquency, which I used to chair.
The first thing we did was assess the biggest barriers to reentry. One was access to housing—4 out of 5 landlords screen out applicants who have served time. The same is true in employment, which is why in Montgomery County we banned the box from hiring applications that asks if applicants have a criminal record. Finally, access to health care and drug and alcohol treatment is also a key. For example, one of the things I learned at the county level is, when someone is arrested and convicted, don’t terminate their Medicaid—suspend it, instead. Because if you terminate it, there’s a three-month wait once they’re released to get them back on it.
LP: You mentioned common sense earlier. I’m wondering, once you started to dive deeply into our current system, whether there were policies that jumped out at you that are clearly counterproductive, but they’re just the way things have always been done?
JS: I know you’re someone who thinks government is often not as effective as it ought to be, so you may laugh at this. But it’s a big problem. We release people from prison all the time without any of the documents they’re going to need to make it in society. We give them $20 and a bus ticket and wish them luck. You ever lost your wallet? Think about how hard it is for you to go replace things like your driver’s license and social security card. Well, a lot of our returning citizens don’t have those documents, and we can make it easier for them to deal with PennDot and the Department of State before we send them back into society.
LP: So you’ve been scouring the state for reentry strategies that work—any specific examples come to mind that you’d like to see expanded?
JS: Allegheny County has reporting centers, and we should duplicate them throughout the state. They’re one-stop shops where returning citizens can go to apply for jobs, work on their GEDs, submit to urine tests, and meet with an employment counselor or their parole officer. Instead of going to, say, 12 different places, you go to one building. Again, I want to stress, this isn’t about being soft on crime or coddling people. It’s about making it easier for people who want to be productive members of society to do just that.
LP: I imagine you’ve spent a good amount of time in our prison system, talking to inmates. What effect has that had on your thinking?
“Every time I visit a prison, it strikes me just how many people are there who never really had a shot in the first place,” says Shapiro. “Either they were abused, addicted to drugs or alcohol, or they lack basic education. I’m the last to condone criminal actions, but if they’re going to be released back into our communities, it’s just smart to fill in those areas where they had gaps. In the end, that protects taxpayers.”
JS: I’ve spent a good amount of time visiting prisons, more as a County Commissioner than as AG. And every time I’m there, it strikes me just how many people are there who never really had a shot in the first place. Either they were abused, addicted to drugs or alcohol, or they lack basic education. I’m the last to condone criminal actions, particularly when there are victims involved, but if they’re going to be released back into our communities, it’s just smart to fill in those areas where they had gaps. Because, in the end, that protects taxpayers. The Governor gets this, the Secretary of Corrections really gets it, and, more and more, county wardens get it.
LP: But does the Department of Justice under Jeff Sessions get it? I’m hearing some very old-school “law and order” rhetoric from Sessions.
JS: I don’t know what Jeff Sessions really believes, so I don’t know how to respond to that. I just know I was hired to protect our citizens and reform our system. Where I can, I’m going to work with the Department of Justice to improve the lives of Pennsylvania’s citizens.
LP: In your Temple Law School Commencement address last month, you indicated that you’re at the forefront of a new type of “states’ rights.” I’m old enough to remember when that phrase was code for sanctioning civil rights abuses. But now, with assaults on individual rights coming from the federal government, do you see your role as a check on presidential power, as when you and other AGs filed lawsuits against President Trump’s travel ban?
JS: Absolutely. I’ve been talking about this a lot. When Congress has abrogated its responsibility to be a check on the executive branch, that responsibility has to fall to the states. As I said at Temple, when the federal government lowers standards for financial oversight, environmental protection, civil rights and workers’ rights, it’s up to the states to fill that void.
LP: AGs used to think of themselves as in the putting away the bad guys business. You’re laying out a much more politically activist agenda. Is there a political risk to that?
JS: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t pay much attention to that stuff. You’re a pundit, that’s your area. Isn’t that why you guys call somebody like [public affairs strategist] Larry Ceisler, to get that type of analysis?
Photo by Montgomery County Planning Commission via Flickr