Our country is in dire need of criminal justice reform. Crucial failings in our prison system have led to continuation of a broken infrastructure that turns former convicts back to a life of crime. Recidivism rates in the United States are astronomical: 77 percent of prisoners in state penitentiary systems, and 76 percent of federal inmates, were re-arrested within five years of release.
While numerous factors contribute to increased recidivism, such as a lack of employment or education opportunities, there has been difficulty in providing solutions due to the scale of the issue. However, a long-time judge from Philadelphia may have a reintegration plan that could prove the answer.
Judge James DeLeon is a veteran jurist and has served as a judge in Philadelphia for over 30 years. He went to Howard University and worked on both Martin Luther King Jr’s Poor People Campaign of 1968, and Robert Kennedy’s Presidential Campaign. During his tenure, he has experienced Pennsylvania’s soaring recidivism and incarceration rate first hand: at 50,000 prisoners in the state, incarceration has increased by 484% since 1980. I recently was able to speak with Judge DeLeon on his reintegration strategy, which is presented in his book, Operation Fresh Start.
“Low quality education is linked to high drop-out rates which produce jobless young men who commit crimes and go to prison,” states DeLeon in Fresh Start, “where they are not rehabilitated, but hardened, and become more likely to commit further crimes.”
“There is very little successful effort to rehabilitate nonviolent offenders, meaning some of them eventually will become violent.” DeLeon wrote. “We treat everybody the same and we need a new model.”
DeLeon began developing his “Fresh Start” model in 2008, as a means to reduce incarceration and allow for former prisoners to better reintegrate into their communities. “I saw how many people were coming back into our society with little training and not really having hope on what they were going to do next with their lives,” the Judge told me. “I saw what it was doing to their children, where even they were starting to lose hope on their futures.”
“All of those aspects led me to believe that we have to think of better ways to make our societies better, what we could do to alleviate recidivism and augment the reintegration of returning citizens into our society and that by doing so would suppress crime.”
Judge DeLeon has presented the plan to Pennsylvania’s governor, Tom Wolf, and Lieutenant Governor Mike Stack, whose office had expressed interest in the “Fresh Start” proposal. It includes expansive strategies to create city and statewide mentor-ship and work education programs, alongside reforms to the state’s critically backlogged Pardon Board.
“We really have to pardon more people than we are now.” James said. “20,000 people are coming out prison in Pennsylvania each year, but we’re only pardoning maybe 8 or 16, and you have about 2,000 people on this waiting list, some for 15 years who have been cleared for pardon but haven’t yet.”
The Judge’s system relies on a communal concept he refers to as the shared responsibility concept.
“There has to be the shared responsibility concept,” he explained, “where in general to fight recidivism and support reintegration, the community leaders, the jobs and school sectors, and the citizens, have to do their part to help a citizen fully reintegrate into society, without the stigma of conviction.”
“And while its understood that the conviction cannot be erased, the citizen is forgiven by the community after completion of a shared responsibility program, and we have to embrace that concept from the top down, from the governor to the mayors to see success.”
The “Fresh Start” approach is also heavily inspired by work education and training programs, such as the German Workforce Skills Initiative, which was created to help provide vocational education opportunities for their citizens. DeLeon believes that could be brought to American prisons.
“In Germany, a skilled laborer, someone like a carpenter or machinist , are on the same level as someone with say a bachelors degree, and they tried to bring that system to the United States in 2014.” he said, “I think that would be an excellent system to bring to our prison system. These participants in the program who finish their prison sentence would be able to come back to society as skilled laborers.”
Because of DeLeon’s position as a judge, he can’t actively work with the State’s legislature, but he remains optimistic. And while the proposal was tailored to meet Pennsylvania’s needs, DeLeon says the model could be easily implemented in other states and even on a federal level.
“Everything in this book is what’s needed throughout the entire United States. Of course other people may have other ideas as well, and we can’t argue over whose is best, we have to worry about coming up with good ideas that help society.”