Political Odd Couple Pushes Prisoner Re-Entry Breakthrough

Article excerpt

Who'd ever thought it? America's most imaginative prisoner re-entry program isn't flourishing in some left-leaning coastal city, but rather in solid "heart of America" Wichita, Kan.

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, chair of the Democratic Governors Association, and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Christian conservative leader and now presidential candidate.

Brownback, a sponsor of the federal Second Chance Act to stimulate state re-entry 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, on their release, needed mental health and drug counseling, training on how to apply for a job, and tips on finding housing.

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

Eric Cadora and Tony Fabelo of the New York-based Justice Mapping Center 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 1950s 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.

Sebelius and the legislative leaders, noting that Kansas' prison population had risen 25 percent in a decade, with projections of another 25 percent rise, 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. …