This Nun Found a Way to Save Prisoners’ Lives — All by Spelling ‘God’ Backwards

Sister Pauline Quinn says it was a German shepherd who saved her life.
After running away from an abusive home and being shuffled between different institutions throughout her adolescence, Quinn was released onto the streets at age 18.
“Where do I go? What do I do?” she remembers. “I lived in abandoned buildings. Slept in doorways, on a bench.”
Living on the streets made her even more vulnerable to abuse, Quinn says. “I was taken advantage of by people in authority, such as the police.”
Quinn would visit dogs in kennels as a way to cope with her mistreatment. When she eventually adopted a German shepherd named Joni, everything began to turn around.
“That became the start of a different life because I learned I had power within me at that time. She gave me the power,” Quinn says. People started treating her differently, staying away as she walked down the street with a big dog by her side. “I liked the feeling so much I got another dog. I knew that they would protect me, which people did not do for me.”
With the confidence Joni gave her, Quinn started thinking about how she could use dogs to help other people who were suffering. She couldn’t afford to take her own dogs to dog-training classes, but trainers allowed her to sit in on their classes and observe what they were doing. In 1981, after years of self study, she teamed up with Leo K. Bustad, the dean of Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, to launch the first-ever Prison Pet Partnership.
The program operated out of the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) and paired previously homeless dogs with inmates who trained them as service animals to help veterans and others suffering from trauma.
“I wanted the inmates to learn how to become others-centered, using the dog as a tool for change, but also for them to learn a skill that they can use when they get out, like dog training,” Quinn says.
After a three-month trial that showed the model could work, WCCW implemented the pet partnership as a permanent program — and similar programs began sprouting up throughout the country. Today there are over 200 prison dog programs in the U.S., as well as a handful in foreign countries.
Different programs have different objectives and funding sources, and there has yet to be a comprehensive study on the programs’ efficacy. But there are plenty of anecdotal reports on programs successfully reducing recidivism, improving inmate self-esteem and reducing conflicts within the prisons.
Inmates themselves report feeling empowered by their work with the dogs. “I thought that if I could do something to make someone’s life better, maybe it would help balance the scales a little bit,” says writer Charles Huckelbury, who served 38 years for homicide. “It gave me a good feeling knowing that I was helping somebody instead of hurting people.”
And Dunasha Payne, an inmate at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, tells NationSwell through tears that the dogs are a key way of coping with life behind bars. “They make you feel like you’re worth something, and they make you wake up every day, that you have a purpose in life and that you’re not just a prisoner.”
Watch the video above to learn more about Quinn and her work to bring about healing through the power of human-animal connections.
More: These Dogs Are Giving Inmates a Paws-itive Path Forward

Restorative Justice Programs That Work

This past July, two men were brutally beaten while heading back to their hotel in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Four men were charged with the attack, but instead of pushing for a harsh jail sentence, the two victims proposed something else: a face-to-face meeting with the perpetrators.  
The idea is based on a process called restorative justice. In a country where criminal justice often involves harsh penalties like jail time and steep fines, restorative justice asks everyone impacted by a conflict or a crime to develop a shared understanding of both its root causes and effects. Restorative justice considers the harm done and strives for agreement from all concerned parties on how to make amends.
In the U.S., restorative justice takes a number of forms. In many cases, offenders and victims face one another and discuss the reasons underpinning a crime and also work on potential solutions. But other models of restorative justice might include roundtable discussions or community involvement.
And it’s not just for courts: Restorative justice programs are also being used in schools to keep students from being suspended, which many say is ineffective and more like a vacation than anything particularly edifying.
Here are a few examples of restorative justice programs around the nation.

A Jury of Your (Teen) Peers

In the isolated waterfront neighborhood of Red Hook, in Brooklyn, teenagers are trained for 30 hours before being given an opportunity to help fellow teens, as part of a program administered by the Center for Court Innovation in New York.
For offenders between the ages of 10 and 18, low-level offenses such as bullying, assault or theft — cases that could easily land in a family or criminal court — are heard by a youth judge, a peer jury, a tribunal, an adult judge or some combination therein.
While the model is a flexible one, the end goals are much the same. According to the court’s training manual, “Youths have a primary role in presenting and hearing cases and the youth court’s fundamental approach should be restorative in nature, focusing on positive peer interactions, allowing the respondent to redress any harm done to the community and providing opportunities for positive youth development for both members and respondents.”
The success of the program has led to the introduction of youth courts in every NYC borough. Mayor Bill de Blasio endorses the program. “Young people must have confidence in the criminal justice system,” he said in a recent press release. “That starts by understanding how it works and by seeing themselves as a part of the administration of justice.”

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Men As Peacemakers facilitates open conversations between men to acknowledge that “[abuse] is a male problem” and encourage healthy behavior for youth offenders.

A “Whole School” Approach

Three years ago, in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, a young black student threw Skittles at another student, landing him in jail.
His arrest was just one of many such incidents within the Jefferson Parish public school system that penalized black youth more frequently and more severely than their white peers, and it resulted in a complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center against the school district.
As a result of the arrest and subsequent national attention, the school district decided to implement a new discipline plan featuring restorative justice, where students have the right to request a restorative circle before they are suspended. This is called a “whole school” approach, where anyone who is impacted by an incident — teachers, students and even parents — sit in a circle and express themselves in a nonjudgmental forum. At the end, participants come up with a way to address the problem or harm the incident caused.
At a school in Marrero, a city inside Jefferson Parish, suspensions in one school dropped by 56 percent, according to CityLab. Other schools in the district that have embraced a similar approach have also seen declines in suspension rates.

Once Offenders, Now Volunteers

Instead of locking up bullies, why not try talking to them instead?
That’s the goal of L.A.’s Teen Court, an intervention program which provides selected juvenile offenders with the opportunity to be questioned, judged and sentenced by a jury of their peers.
David S. Wesley, presiding judge for the Los Angeles Superior Court, thinks that having youth offenders plead their case to a jury of their peers, is a much more effective way of preventing future skirmishes with the law than traditional punitive measures.
“Punishment was not punishment,” Wesley said in a Center for Court Innovation podcast, explaining the basics of the court’s SHADES (Stop Hate and Delinquency by Empowering Students) restorative justice program. “It was what we could do to make sure the minor [didn’t] get in trouble again.”
The Teen Court approach differs from that of New York’s Center for Court Innovation, where the victim of the crime might be involved in the restorative justice process. But both models appear to be effective.
“We know anecdotally that our recidivism rates are very, very low,” Wesley said. “What ends up happening is that after their [sentencing], they come back [and volunteer as jurors].”

Men As Peacemakers

It’s estimated that one in three women have experienced some form of violence by a partner in the U.S., and one in four have been severely abused by a significant other.
And despite the fact that domestic violence against women is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men, many men do nothing to stop it.
That’s the goal of Men As Peacemakers: to reframe the narrative of healthy male behavior for youth offenders.
The Duluth, Minnesota-based nonprofit focuses its efforts on reducing commercial sexual exploitation and on domestic violence restorative programs. The group uses a “circle process,” rooted in traditional practices of Native American tribes, in helping facilitate discussions about problems with race, equity and education.
According to Men As Peacemakers, the purpose of their restorative justice program is to give youths a positive male role model to follow and “to acknowledge that [abuse] is a male problem.”

Meet the Delaware Teen Fighting for the Rights of Former Juvenile Offenders

“I could have never imagined that something as severe as incarceration would happen to someone like me, until it did,” said Jane Lyons, recalling the path that led her neighbor to the local detention center.
Lyons, 18, grew up in an affluent Delaware suburb outside of Wilmington. A few miles down the road from her home sits Ferris School for Boys, a juvenile detention center she admits gave her an “eerie” feeling driving past.
It was only when her childhood neighbor was sent to Ferris on drug charges that the center became more than an abstract concept for Lyons. Her neighbor had come from the same affluent background as her, but after experiencing family problems became addicted to drugs and involved in a local gang.
Her neighbor’s incarceration was a wakeup call to Lyons about the difficulties facing former juvenile offenders as they try to rebuild their lives. “[Teens at Ferris] feel as if society is stacked against them,” she explained at a recent TEDxYouth event. “They simply think that our world is waiting for them to make a mistake.”
With this in mind, as a freshman in high school she teamed up with her brother Patrick to launch Youth Overcoming Obstacles, a nonprofit dedicated to lifting up formerly incarcerated youth. The organization started small — gathering donations of books, school supplies, clothes and other essentials to make sure teens’ basic needs were met as they exited the detention center. They eventually moved on to organizing larger fundraisers to send the young men to summer camp, vocational training, and even to provide a down payment on one family’s apartment.
“This started as an act of kindness and now has become a passion project to replace the recidivism cycle with a resilient path to a brighter future for teens who want to continue positive change,” Lyons told NationSwell.
Youth Overcoming Obstacles was so successful at raising funds and awareness to support formerly incarcerated youth that the Delaware Legislature adopted their re-entry fund after a year and a half. Now Lyons is working on a pilot program that offers financial training to these young people to help them transition into the workforce.
Teens have a vital role to play in improving their communities, says Lyons. “My advice to other young people is to follow your heart and have the courage to reach out to community leaders and public officials with your plan of action,” she told NationSwell.
“It may take some persistence, but they really do want to hear your ideas, and they will help if they can.”
Homepage photo via TEDx Talks.

To Relieve Ohio’s Overcrowded Jails, Rethink Who Goes in Them

On a recent afternoon at the city hall in Toledo, Ohio, Holly Matthews is teaching her colleagues some slang. “I forgot to tell everyone my new word of the day,” she says. “It’s ‘pookie.’” A pookie, Matthews explains, is another word for a crack pipe. “I checked with Urban Dictionary,” she says, chuckling.
Matthews is executive director of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, an agency that provides criminal justice information services to residents of Lucas County in Northwest Ohio. She is also one of a dozen members of the county’s Population Review Team, an interagency group that seeks ways of reducing or eliminating jail time for new or low-level offenders, with the goal of reducing incarceration rates in Lucas County’s overburdened jails. (Matthews’ “pookie” was in a case file she was reviewing, found by police in the pocket of a man who was arrested after a domestic dispute.)
The atmosphere in the room can be lighthearted, but the Population Review Team’s work is serious business — especially in Toledo, Lucas’ county seat, where reducing incarceration rates is sorely needed. The county’s jail is designed to hold only pretrial inmates, but it is being overburdened by too many people waiting to see a judge. In 2014, a U.S. Federal judge ordered the county to cap its jail population, which had a capacity of 346 beds. Two years after the cap was set, the jail’s population has been reduced to 667 people — down from 845 in 2016 — for the first quarter this year, according to Matthews.
To try and address these issues of overcrowding, the Population Review Team meets once a week to review the county’s jail cases to find ways to reduce bail, alter criminal offenses and, in some cases, eliminate or reduce jail time completely.
Toledo isn’t alone in dealing with overcrowded jails.
Nationally, jail populations have been steadily rising, contributing to high incarceration rates throughout the country. Daily local jail populations swelled from 157,000 in 1970 to over 700,000 people in 2015. Annually, there are close to 11 million admissions into jails, according to data collected by the Vera Institute of Justice.
“It’s become a crisis because as we’ve added laws that impose mandatory sentencing,” says Gene A. Zmuda, a common pleas court judge for Lucas County. “We are incarcerating more and more of our population.”

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Judge Gene A. Zmuda is working to keep Ohio’s jails from becoming overcrowded.

For those on the Population Review Team — along with Matthews, the group includes local correction officers and defense attorneys — this means reviewing rap sheets to determine if there are ways to release inmates without putting the public at risk, such as increased usage of electronic monitoring.  
In other cases, plea deals are brokered, according to Sean McNulty, chief public defender for the Toledo Legal Aid Society and an original member of the review team. Candidates who are deemed “good” — those with misdemeanor charges or nonviolent crimes — can have their bail modified or their case expedited or, in some cases, they are simply set free.
Zmuda invokes an example of a first-time drug user. “Maybe jail isn’t the right place for that person,” he says. “Send them to rehabilitation and break the cycle of addiction.”
The program started in 2016, after the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded the county a $2 million grant directing local mental-health organizations to partner with law enforcement officials, with the intent to “institute changes aimed at reducing local incarceration and disparities in jail usage in accordance with its implementation plan.
Over the course of an afternoon, the team isolates about a dozen defendants in custody whose charges will be reviewed. During a recent meeting, McNulty and John Madigan, the city’s prosecutor, were able to agree to several resolutions for a handful of people who were sitting in the county’s jail. The negotiations included a reduced charge, credit for time served and a probation term.
According to Matthews, this comprehensive collaboration and review reduced 1,800 jail days in total for 2017. And while the jail’s population isn’t as low as officials want it to be, they point to the reductions they’ve made in the past two years, by almost two hundred inmates in total.
“Jail buildup happened over 40 years and it won’t be solved in just a year or two,” says Patrick Griffin, the senior program officer for the MacArthur Foundation.
Along with the review board meetings, Lucas County officials have implemented four other strategies — such as training cops to identify alternatives to arrests or keeping people with mental health issues out of jail — to help in reducing the county’s jail population.
And as the initiative continues, Griffin hopes that solutions like the ones being implemented in Lucas County will spread to other parts of the state, and beyond.
“It will take success and then practitioners will take notice,” he says. “We have to increase demand among citizens for jail reform.”
Zmuda, McNulty and others believe that the next important step will be addressing the overrepresentation of minors in the system, along with keeping substance abusers from getting swept into the jail. 
“We’re holding fewer — and holding the right — people,” says Zmuda. “We have right-sized our jail.”

At This Prison, Puppies and Inmates Give Each Other Purpose

At this women’s prison in upstate New York, puppies are proving to be more than just woman’s best friend.
“They make you feel like you’re worth something,” says Dunasha Payne, an inmate at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. “And they make you wake up every day, that you have a purpose in life and that you’re not just a prisoner.”
Payne is part of Puppies Behind Bars, a program that teaches inmates to train puppies as service animals for veterans and first responders suffering from PTSD. Not only do the dogs bring comfort to the people they serve, but the inmates participating in the program are “the most well-behaved” in the prison, according to one guard. Watch the video above and read our full article to see how Puppies Behind Bars is making a difference for people in and out of prison.

In These Prisons, Former Offenders Find Healing in Theatre Arts

Omar Williams is an actor — a deadly one, he jokes. Having spent 21 years in prison for kidnapping and attempted murder, the Fishkill Correctional Facility inmate says he’s been acting his whole life to get what he wants.
“I know exactly how to play you,” he tells me from one of the counseling offices at the prison, which is located about 60 miles north of New York City. “I could tell you anything to bullshit you, to rob you, to kill you. I’ve been acting my whole life.”
Minutes later, Williams — known as “Sweets” to his fellow inmates — stands in a classroom and recites lines to the 19th-century French play Cyrano de Bergerac.
In the scene, de Bergerac joins his friend Le Bret — played by Williams — among sleeping soldiers and talks about how he just cheated death, again. The director, Charlie Scatamacchia, stops the scene halfway through to give Williams a basic lesson in being a thespian: You gotta emote.
“You’re just reading the words,” Scatamacchia tells him. “Actually say what they’re saying.”
As the scene starts up again, Williams is animated and expressive; his whole body is in movement. It’s not exactly a Tony Award-winning performance, but Scatamacchia approves. He nods emphatically. Williams is nailing it.
The rehearsal is part of a program run by volunteers with Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA), a New York nonprofit that provides workshops and classes in a myriad of disciplines, from theater and music to creative writing, painting and dance, in men’s and women’s prisons around the state. The goal: to facilitate the social, emotional and cognitive skills needed to succeed on the outside.
Similar art-as-therapy programs are found only in a handful of states, despite the fact that they’ve been proven to be effective in reducing disciplinary infractions and improving anger management. One 2012 study found a nearly three-fold increase in inmates pursuing college-level academics after participating in RTA. Inmates have also shown enhanced speaking skills and self-esteem. But perhaps most impressive: RTA boasts a nearly 5 percent recidivism rate, meaning almost 95 percent of people who go through the program don’t reoffend after their release. That’s a genuinely remarkable percentage, as the national recidivism rate is close to 77 percent after five years.
Unfortunately, arts programs are also usually the first to be cast aside when a prison has a need for more beds or security. And not everyone is a fan, either: Critics, including corrections officers and victims, claim that “cold-blooded” killers and hardened criminals don’t deserve prison-arts programs. But the flip side, argue prison-reform advocates, is that, eventually, most will be released back into their communities, and so it’s to everyone’s benefit that they be rehabilitated in whatever way works before that happens.
“Do we want them to be better criminals when they get out, or to make better choices,” asks Craig Cullinane, director of programming for RTA. “These people who commit crimes, they should have the ability to go back to the world better than when they come in. Isn’t that what we want?”


Fishkill’s prison is a visual tease. The all-male medium-security prison boasts a prepossessing Gothic façade set against the bucolic backdrop of the Hudson Valley’s lush greenery. In early spring, a mist envelops the grounds, making it impossible to see that the prison is surrounded by over 20-foot-high chain-link fences wrapped by barbed wire.
Every day at 6 p.m. the men weave their way through the complex, walking down paved streets in between fences and buildings for their allotted nightly recreation time. Twice a week the dozen or so men that participate in RTA meet to go over lines, stagecraft and scene construction.
For those who have bad days — and there’s no denying there are a lot of those in prison — RTA is a welcome escape.
“The first thing we do is we go around and share one word about how we feel that day. I want them to share honestly, but in reality they’re dealing with a lot of crap,” says Scatamacchia, who has been directing plays with RTA for two years as a volunteer.
Williams had one of those bad days about two and half years ago. His twin children were stillborn. Out of rage and sorrow, he threatened to stab another inmate in the neck.
“I could’ve killed someone that day. Thank God for RTA at that moment,” he says. “They really helped me through it.”

Inmates at Fishkill Correctional Facility practice their performance as part of Rehabilitation Through the Arts.

The program is not intended to remake prisoners into professional actors. It’s not designed to help them find a career in the arts after release. Rather, says executive director Katherine Vockins, who founded RTA in 1996, it provides inmates the opportunity to tap into emotions and develop the soft skills that can help them deal with tough situations.
That’s not to say it’s easy.
“We are all looking for the ‘fix’ that will take people — often badly damaged by life experience — and put them through some magical program that washes, dries and folds, ending with neatly functioning citizens,” says Vockins, adding that progress is hard to measure in terms of before and after. “Deep, lasting change in cognition and behavior does not work that way.”
California was one of the first states to bring the arts to correctional facilities. In 1977, the Prison Arts Project, a program run by the nonprofit William James Association, was introduced at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. A few years later, its success led to a new administrative office, Arts-in-Corrections, within the California Department of Corrections.
The University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), launched in 1990, started out by teaching painting to less than 50 female inmates. Today the program is available at every prison in the state, and PCAP hosts one of the largest prisoner-art exhibitions in the world.
“For the incarcerated, the fact that somebody on the outside is reaching out to make connections and to see people beyond their prison numbers, in itself, has value,” says Elaine Chen, PCAP’s events and exhibits coordinator. “Even just to connect with people without a reason or a shield of social justice — just to do art together — brings a lot of therapeutic value.”
Research into Michigan’s program has shown that inmates who take part in the arts report an 86 percent higher quality of life while in prison than before they joined PCAP, and 93 percent self-reported learning new and better ways to express themselves, according to Chen.
“We can transform our lives, even in here,” says Ronald “Bach” Jarvis, a Fishkill inmate and RTA participant who has been serving 17 years for manslaughter. “[RTA] helped me find myself. It’s easy to get lost in here in the mist and darkness. But to find that light? That’s what this program is for me.”


Despite numerous studies showing that arts education works inside of prison — as well as outside, in terms of reoffending once released — programs continue to be cut from state budgets across the country, with more expected in the next few months.
California’s Arts-in-Corrections, for example, was almost eliminated in 2003 when the state was in the depths of a financial crisis. The program was saved by private investors, including members of California Lawyers for the Arts, who donated heavily to the program.
Other state-run arts-rehabilitation programs might not be so lucky. In the Trump Administration’s latest budget proposal, funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, which only makes up less than 1 percent of the national budget, would be cut from $150 million to $29 million. The NEA funds, in part, almost every prison-arts program in the country.
Though RTA does not receive direct funding from NEA grants, it does get money from the New York State Council on the Arts, which has received over $3.5 million from the NEA since 2013, according to the endowment’s archives. Money from the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) is also at risk.
“The shakiness of the economy has affected the NYS budget,” Vockins says. “[We have been told] that while the DOCCS budget is huge, the allocation to programs is quite small. Even vocational programs have been severely cut.”
Outside of funding, there is also a problem with capacity. RTA, for example, operates in five prisons throughout New York but relies almost wholly on volunteers.
“Until a year ago, we [had been] four people for 20 years,” says Cullinane, the director of programming. “It comes down to leadership and what [our state leaders] care about. We get very little from the state; we raise almost all our money ourselves.”


Cyrano is an interesting choice of a play,” Scatamacchia says. He’s sipping coffee at the NoMad Library Bar in Manhattan, telling me about his background in theater and how he came to volunteer with RTA.
The task of teaching the art of acting to prisoners wasn’t something that he expected to be so fulfilling, he says, adding that, initially, he was afraid of what he would encounter. Instead, he was pleasantly surprised at how easygoing and intelligent the men were.
“It’s totally different from television,” he says of his experience.
The participants in the program get to decide which play to put on — for his first RTA gig, Scatamacchia directed them in The Odd Couple — and the choice of Cyrano de Bergerac set him aback. “It’s not like we teach theory or anything like that, but there is an interesting lesson to be taken from this play. You can’t look at [the character of] Cyrano and know everything about him,” he says.
The feeling of constantly being judged is something that many of the men at Fishkill experience. They say that those on “the outside” just don’t care to know about the lives of people on the inside. It’s easy to feel forgotten.
But RTA has helped them feel remembered and recognized, even in a small way.
“This makes me feel special,” says Jarvis. “Attention is positive. If I can strike people positively in this form, it makes me feel human again.”
October 8, 2018 3:20 p.m.: This story’s headline has been changed.

Our Bail System Isn’t Working

For the past few years, states have been slowly making progress on reforming their criminal justice laws, including throwing out past marijuana infractions, ending solitary confinement for juveniles and recommending significantly less jail time for nonviolent crimes.
Now, bail reform is getting its time in the spotlight — or in the hot seat, depending — as New Jersey marks its one-year anniversary of ending the practice that requires defendants to pay their way out of jail before a trial. (Currently, the state releases low-level offenders to their homes, while others are held for 48 hours; during that time, prosecutors put together a criminal profile that determines if a person will be kept in prison.)
Many lawmakers are taking up similar reform strategies, as overhauling the nation’s bail system also makes for smart across-the-aisle politics in a time of heightened partisanship. Senators Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., last year introduced a bill that would incentivize states to end or reform their money-bail programs.
Bail was originally intended to motivate defendants to show up for all of their hearings; if they do so, their money is given back to them once their trial is over. But studies have found that posting bail — which can cost tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the crime — is no guarantee that someone will return to the courtroom. In the meantime, defendants arrested for a low-level offense and can’t afford bail often sit in jail for days or weeks, costing them time away from family and their jobs, and costing taxpayers an average of $38 million every day.
Data from a 2016 study conducted in Pennsylvania by Columbia University researchers found that there was no correlation between being released on bail and returning to court. What the researchers did find, however, is that those who couldn’t afford their bail and thus remained in jail were more likely to commit future crimes by almost 10 percent. The study also found “significant evidence of a correlation between pretrial detention and both conviction and recidivism.” In other words, our current money-bail system is one in which a minor offense often leads to more offenses, entrapping low-income people in a cycle of incarceration simply because they’re unable to pay.
What’s more, the Bronx Freedom Fund in New York City, which bails out people without requiring reimbursement, has found that nearly all of the defendants they sponsor do return to court, despite not having a financial incentive for doing so.
“We know that bail does not make people return to court in greater percentages,” says Jonathan Lippman, the former chief judge for the New York Court of Appeals and current chair of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform. In fact, he says, “The people who return to court are absolutely at the percentages of those [who weren’t required to post] bail at all.”
Lippman, among others, has been a supporter of using algorithms, or risk-assessment models, to decide whether bail should be mandated for a defendant.
Judges in more than half of the nation rely on these models in some way. Inputting data, such as whether a defendant has a criminal record and the zip code where they live, is used to determine how likely it is that the person will later show up in court.
But risk-assessment tools aren’t a perfect panacea, say critics, and their widespread use can still lead to racial or economic biases.
A recent class-action lawsuit filed in Harris County, Texas, concluded that those with money are given preferential treatment when calculating data; for example, the risk-assessment tool used to determine whether or not someone would return for trial gave the same weight to being poor as it did to having a prior offense.
“Under the County’s risk-assessment point system … poverty indicators (such as not owning a car) receive the same point value as prior criminal violations or prior failures to appear in court,” a federal appeals court decided. “Thus, an arrestee’s impoverishment increased the likelihood he or she would need to pay to be released.”
Richard Berk, who created the algorithm currently used in Pennsylvania’s risk-assessment tool, says that it’s a fool’s errand to think that algorithms would create a perfect environment.
“The question is not whether the algorithms are accurate and fair, but whether they are more accurate and more fair than current practice,” Berk said in an email. “So we can reduce errors and reduce bias, which does not mean that the accuracy is perfect and that all possible bias is gone. As they say, we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
But as more states take on reforming their bail practices, a uniquely American institution is at risk: the commercial bail-bond industry.
Bail-bond offices put up money for a defendant while typically keeping 10 percent. If defendants don’t show up to court, the bond office gets fined, and a bounty hunter is dispatched to find the missing person.
Though the bail-bond services industry grew by almost 3 percent between 2011 and 2016 and brought in $2 billion in revenue, it’s now facing increasing pressure as some jurisdictions have done away with the need for bail bondsmen altogether by eliminating cash bail.
In New Jersey, for example, bail-bond shops have seen a dramatic reduction in business and are operating under threat of closing. Last summer, reality TV star Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman stood outside a New Jersey courthouse and claimed that the elimination of bail bonds were “killing people.”
But for bail-reform advocates, Chapman’s argument is stale. And like it or not, that reform is coming, as New York, Delaware and California are all looking to eliminate — or at least reconsider — their money-bail practices.
“You have a lot of research to show that bail is harmful. Those points need to be disseminated,” says Zoë Towns, the director of criminal justice programs at the bipartisan advocacy group, in response to how reform might affect bail-bond business owners. “Our position on bail reform and justice is looking at how we can drive down incarceration rates, and that may mean that structures within and outside the system need to be changed.”


An earlier version of this story identified as a left-leaning organization, not a bipartisan one. We regret the error.

10 Outstanding Solutions of 2017

Across the country, changemakers are operating behind the scenes, working to solve some of America’s most daunting problems. They do so humbly, without seeking praise or notoriety. At NationSwell, we’ve always sought to elevate the innovation and tenacity of their efforts in the hopes of inspiring more people to action. Here, a celebration of the top work in 2017.
My Final Act of Service
Before Marine Corps veteran Anthony Egan dies, he has several lessons he wants to teach his son.
Disarmed: The Reclaiming of a City From Epic Gun Violence
In a community that’s experienced a 200 percent increase in the number of shootings in the past three years alone, ordinary residents are becoming peacekeepers.
The Rx for Better Birth Control
Colorado attempts to end the cycle of poverty by preventing unplanned pregnancy.
When Liberals and Conservatives Came Together on the Environment
Today’s politicians should look to the past for inspiration on how to achieve bipartisan legislation for the good of the planet.
From Blight to Beauty in the Motor City
It started with a dad protecting his family from drug dealers. Thirty years later, his revitalization efforts are still going strong.

An illustration inspired by the #metoo movement.

3 Ways to Show Empathy When Talking About Sexual Assault
The words used when speaking about sexual assault can have an impact on what others view as acceptable.
Neo-Nazi Music Is on the Rise. These Companies and People Are Taking It On
A former white supremacist fights back against the alt-right’s use of music to spread a message of hate.
A Prison With No Walls
Can a facility that relies on strict discipline instead of barbed wire and bars result in lower recidivism rates?
6 Stunning Art Projects That Are Making Cities Healthier
Cities across the nation recognize the revitalizing powers of beautiful community art.
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Putting Their Prison Pasts Behind Them

America’s criminal justice system currently houses more than 2 million people — that’s more per capita than any other nation on earth. Even worse: Many are repeat offenders who haven’t been offered the support or resources to get their lives back on track once released.
This, along with the stigma attached to a criminal record, has a devastating effect on their job prospects, with an estimated 60 percent still out of work one year after release.
A new initiative, backed in part by the singer John Legend, is hoping to reverse those dire statistics. Unlocked Futures is a joint project of the philanthropic fund New Profit, Bank of America and Legend’s own nonprofit, FreeAmerica.
Over the course of 16 months, the accelerator, which recently announced its inaugural class, will provide support, funding and mentoring to eight people chosen for their visionary prison-reform efforts. These social entrepreneurs have more in common than just a dedication to helping former inmates flourish on the outside: All of them have been either incarcerated themselves or impacted by the criminal justice system in some way.
“Too often are formerly incarcerated individuals locked out of job opportunities because of their past,” Legend said last spring, when Unlocked Futures was announced. “I have seen that entrepreneurship is a viable way for formerly incarcerated individuals to build sustainable livelihoods and contribute to their communities and neighborhoods.”

“This normalizes success ― others seeing us as actual human beings who can succeed even though we’ve gone to prison,” says Will Avila of the Unlocked Futures program.

The initiative will support entrepreneurship as a powerful pathway out of the incarceration cycle, which costs America $80 billion a year in hard dollars and untold billions more in its negative impact on vulnerable families and communities. By amplifying organizations built by those whose lives have been rocked by the judicial system, Unlocked Futures also hopes to change public perception about the humanity and potential of people who refuse to be defined by their worst mistake.
The ventures founded by the first cohort of entrepreneurs and nourished by Unlocked Futures range from an app called Flikshop that lets people send photo postcards to loved ones behind bars to the Bronx, N.Y.-based Hope House, which provides transitional housing for formerly incarcerated women.
After spending a chunk of his teens and 20s in prison, Will Avila founded Clean Decisions, a commercial kitchen cleaning company that exclusively employs formerly incarcerated men in Washington, D.C., and its nonprofit offshoot, Changing Perceptions, which provides job training and reentry support to recently released inmates. Avila credits Unlocked Futures with validating his efforts and for giving him the confidence to inspire others.
“We are always waiting for someone to come tell us that we did something wrong, and as we get more success we struggle to know what to do because we don’t feel like we deserve it or that we belong,” says Avila. “This normalizes success ― others seeing us as actual human beings who can succeed even though we’ve gone to prison.”
In the nation’s capital, where Avila grew up, 71 percent of returning citizens were unemployed in 2015.
“There are a lot of reasons that’s the case,” he says, “but we all have felt that pain, as well as the pain of homelessness, substance abuse to numb this pain and anger that leads to violence. For this reason, when we do start our own enterprises, we want to give back. Entrepreneurship is a powerful cycle because almost every returning citizen I know is crafting a business that helps others who have served time.”

Singer John Legend is one of the key backers of Unlocked Futures.

Amanda Alexander, founder of the Detroit Justice Center, which provides community lawyering services and economic opportunities to those in and around the prison system, asserts that there is a boldness to the group’s ideas, as well as a sense of urgency.
“Folks in the cohort are always talking about the brothers and sisters they left behind in prison and wanting to reach a hand back to them,” says Alexander, whose father was locked up during a portion of her childhood. “I was fortunate to have support through my dad’s incarceration, and that’s allowed us to have a lifelong relationship. I want the same for other families. My aim is to ensure that families caught up in the criminal justice system aren’t shut out of the city’s future.”
And, she adds, Unlocked Futures helps good ideas spread faster.
“Ultimately, it’s not about the eight of us and our work. It’s about movement building,” Alexander says. “Mass incarceration has touched every part of our society, so it’s going to take a broad movement to bring it down.”
As for Jason Cleveland, founder of tech platform Obodo, which helps nonprofits serving returning citizens streamline data and training systems, Unlocked Futures affirms what he’s long believed ― that there are real market opportunities within the prison-reform movement and that it is possible to both care and prosper.
“For too long, efforts to serve have been hampered by lack of access to capital and an outdated notion that to do good, a person or an organization needs to be impoverished themselves,” he says. “Entrepreneurship is not just about starting businesses; it is about seeing problems as opportunities. It is about seeing beyond the now to what is possible.”
Whenever Cleveland visits prisons around his home state of Missouri, teaching what he calls “the entrepreneurial mindset,” he encounters a glut of potential business leaders.
“Most people there do not understand that they are already entrepreneurs. They don’t see that they have been finding unique solutions to problems their entire lives,” Cleveland says. “Oftentimes, when these people are provided with a framework for making different decisions and given the tools they need to move forward, they do.”

Correction: A previous version of this article indicated that Amanda Alexander’s father had been incarcerated more than once during her childhood. NationSwell apologizes for the error.

This Nonprofit Has Hit on the Way to Keep Ex-Offenders Out of Prison

On a gray morning earlier this year, former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey was talking with Omari Atiba, a convicted felon, in Newark when they were interrupted by Atiba’s phone. As the recently released prisoner’s cell blasted the ’70s disco staple “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” McGreevey couldn’t help but nod along, full white-man-overbite style.
Few could blame the former politician for feeling upbeat. For the past three years, McGreevey — no stranger himself to controversy, having resigned his governorship in 2004 — has been working to remove the obstacles that face ex-inmates once they’re released. On the morning they met, Atiba was just two days out of a New Jersey state prison, where he served 30 years for murder.
Transforming ex-convicts like Atiba into responsible, engaged civilians is a project that has earned McGreevey the support of Chris Christie and four other former Garden State governors. It also led him to John Koufos, a former criminal defense lawyer whose own fall from grace after a drunken hit-and-run accident in 2012 resulted in disbarment and 16 months in prison. Today, Koufos is second-in-command at New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC), the nonprofit founded by McGreevey in 2014.
NJRC has five outposts in the state, including Jersey City, Kearney, Newark, Paterson and Toms River. Its mission is to overhaul onetime prisoners’ lives by overseeing their sobriety, and training and placing them in meaningful jobs. The ambitious project carries an annual price tag of $3 million, which is funded largely by the state.
With a roster of around 1,600 clients, NJRC’s success rate has been praised by the Manhattan Institute as among the best of the New York City–area reentry prison programs. According to a recent analysis by the think tank, U.S. prisons release approximately 650,000 inmates every year. Within the first 12 months, more than half are unable to secure identification and jobs that earn them enough legal income to survive.
But certain programs, like NJRC’s, are proving successful in preventing such scenarios. From January to July 2016, NJRC placed around 1,000 former prisoners in jobs spanning sales, transportation, food services, manufacturing and public works, many with on-ramps to more lucrative positions with building-trade unions.

Omari Atiba (right), pictured here with former Gov. Jim McGreevey, worked with the New Jersey Reentry Corporation to find employment after being released from prison.

That 62 percent job-placement rate likely helped NJRC achieve its low 19.7 percent recidivism. Though that figure is impressive, it spans just six months; the true measure of success will be where these former inmates are five years from now. As the most recent national survey by the Department of Justice found, an estimated three-quarters of ex-offenders are arrested for a new crime within five years of release.
Understanding McGreevey’s and Koufos’ backgrounds helps explain their strategy. McGreevey, as former governor, knows New Jersey influencers, like the chair of the state DMV, and has persuaded them to do things like untangle knotty driver’s records to clear a path toward regaining the right to drive, often essential to maintaining a job. And Koufos, who handled hundreds of pro bono cases for the NAACP before he went to prison, has recruited close to 70 young lawyers to clear up unresolved past infractions such as traffic tickets that can, and often do, return former inmates to their cells.
“It’s incredibly sad,” McGreevey said. “So many of our clients have a sense that catastrophe is right around the corner.”
Sadder still is that often they’re right. Koufos says missteps like missed child support payments can easily secure ex-offenders a return ticket to prison. “A lot of times folks don’t participate in family court” because they’re scared of the outcome, which may include fines. “When they have a lawyer holding their hand, they’re no longer afraid.”
Though they are both the heroes of their own second acts, Koufos and McGreevey are an odd couple. McGreevey studied to be a priest after resigning his Trenton post. Koufos’ wobbly relationship with religion surfaces only at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. “More jobs, less Jesus,” Koufos often reminds McGreevey when they’re talking to clients. But ultimately McGreevey is less concerned with helping clients find God than with helping them find footing in a social landscape built to topple them.
He meets weekly with prisoners across New Jersey to explain NJRC’s mission as well as his own rocky road to redemption. He was the closeted gay governor who left in disgrace, he reminds prisoners. What if it had taken him until his deathbed to come to the realizations that have helped him move forward?
Both men see every day as a chance to stub out others’ doomsday narratives. Atiba, the convicted murderer, now weighs fish in the seafood department at Newark’s ShopRite.
And Patrick D’Aiuto, who once lived in the cell across from Koufos and was released from prison in 2013 after 18 years for armed robbery, is now a commercial roofer with a union. He makes in the high $20s per hour and recently bought a condo.
“I spent pretty much my whole adult life in prison, and I knew that a lot of these programs can be tongue-in-cheek. I always wondered, Why doesn’t the media go to these people who claim to run these great programs and say, ‘If you actually helped someone get a good job, produce that person.’ They’d never be able to produce anybody.”
NJRC, D’Aiuto says, is different: “They’re not just getting guys jobs at Burger King. They’re getting them jobs with benefits that will get them a middle-class existence, so they can lead a productive life.”
Not that they succeed every time. A healthy percentage of clients, most of whom are addicts being treated through NJRC’s recovery channels, relapse. If a client is using, he gets a warning. If there is a second infraction, he’s out. Koufos is generally the one who does the kicking out.
He doesn’t mind, though.
“I dedicated myself to a life of service because of the pain I caused when I was addicted,” Koufos says. “If we can help the next guy recover, we stop the next victim from happening.”
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