By: AIF Staff
On July 16th, the American Idea Foundation held a virtual panel discussion with policymakers, private-sector leaders, and on-the-ground practitioners about how to create pathways for success as individuals exit the criminal justice system and work to become contributing members of their communities.
The conversation, led by former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, highlighted a central premise of the American Idea Foundation: The belief that the best public policies are not made in a vacuum in Washington, DC, but rather are developed, informed, and shaped in a collaborative fashion between policymakers, individuals who are leading on the front-lines and helping vulnerable populations, and their partners in universities, community groups, non-profits, and corporations. Good public policy is not only a natural byproduct of this ongoing collaboration and dialogue, but it is also informed by the experience of individuals and experts, and the data and evidence that has been developed over years of practice. The fact that the First Step Act, which became law in 2018 and which modernized important parts of our criminal justice system, resulted from this type of policy-making process is precisely why it has the potential to be so impactful in the lives of so many.
The First Step Act, as the name implies, was simply the beginning on an ongoing effort to help individuals who made mistakes and atoned for them get on with their lives in a meaningful way. The law created conditions by which individuals could start down a path of redemption and hopefully, with the right support systems, change their ways. The authors of the First Step Act knew that the government, on its own, would not be able to solve a multi-faceted issue like recidivism, and for the law to achieve its stated aims, it would require partners in communities and in industries to assist in expanding opportunities for those trying to rehabilitate themselves following their interactions with the criminal justice system.
The American Idea Foundation wanted to highlight some of these partners who are helping policymakers realize the noble goals of the First Step Act and who are making a difference in reducing recidivism. It did so in a policy discussion entitled, Second Chances: Developing New Solutions for Returning Citizens, which featured leaders from READI Chicago, JPMorgan Chase, and United Health Care.
As Speaker Ryan said when introducing the panel: “Today, we will be talking with some of the organizations that are giving concrete second chances to those who make mistakes. We’re talking to the experts in the field who are actually breathing life into [the First Step Act] and showing how it can work. These organizations are not just providing practical on the ground assistance to the least among us, but they are also developing the practical insights that will lead to the next round of criminal justice reforms, whether they be at the state, local or at the federal level.”
A few excerpts from the policy discussion follow:
Speaker Ryan on Why Criminal Justice Reform Matters & His Evolution on the Subject:
To kick off the panel, Speaker Ryan shared what motivated him to tackle the issue of criminal justice reform. He discussed how his thinking about the issue changed as evidence and research was developed and showed the benefits of giving individuals who paid their debt to society a second chance to lead fulfilling lives.
“As a practicing Catholic, one of the precepts of my faith is that we work to protect the least among us. And for too long as the society, we have ignored those who have made mistakes and paid for those mistakes and we ended up turning what is the legitimate punishment for wrongs committed into a lifelong brand, eliminating the ability for individuals to turn their lives around, permanently separating parents from children and driving millions into despair.
“America at its best is an America that provides for second chances. If a small business owner fails, they pick themselves up and they try again, but for too long, we’ve decided that individuals who break the law don’t get a second chance. Of all the things that our country has demonstrated, it is the power of redemption and so we need to make sure that we realize the power of redemption in our criminal justice system, and with the First Step Act, we have changed that paradigm and formerly incarcerated individuals are now getting a second chance to lead better and more productive lives.”
Ryan continued, “[The passage of the First Step Act] was one of the least covered events of 2018, and yet it might be one of the most consequential from a public policy perspective. So, how did Republicans and Democrats come to agree on controversial hot button issues that they hadn’t been able to come together on and that was so difficult for so many years?
“One reason that policymakers were willing to take a political risk was because of both practical and intellectual research in the field of criminal justice. My experience was instructive: In 2007, I was one of several conservatives who voted against the Second Chance Act, but around that time, a sea change was starting to occur. If you recall, back when the 1994 Clinton Crime Bill [was being considered], you had Republicans and Democrats trying to outmaneuver each other to be “tough on crime,” with “three strikes you’re out” and things like that, which was the political movement of the time. But starting in 2007, states like Texas and a whole swath of generally conservative-leaning states began reforming their laws in ways that better protected their citizens and ensured victim’s rights while ensuring a fairer criminal justice system. These states focused on how they could reduce the need to imprison non-violent offenders and reattach these people to the workforce. And where these laws have been passed, we generally saw reduced recidivism, we saw reduced crime, and we saw reduced costs associated with jailing offenders.”
JPMorgan Chase: A ‘Bell Cow’ Reducing Barriers to Employment for Released & Reformed Individuals
In an exchange with Heather Higginbottom, President of JPMorgan Chase’s Policy Center, Speaker Ryan praised the company for leading the way in reforming its hiring practices and leading the charge in its sector to hire individuals with criminal records. Higginbottom went on to explain exactly what JPMorgan is doing to reduce recidivism and how it is working:
“Several years ago, JPMorgan banned the box on its initial hiring application, which is now something that the federal government has done and is another piece of bipartisan legislation that passed recently for federal government contracting jobs, and that was an important step because we want to hire the best people, and that checkbox was denying us access to a diverse pool of the best talent.
“When you think about the fact that one in three Americans has a criminal record, it’s unbelievable, and you think about what the impact is, [what are] the collateral consequences of that, and what that means to the economy and to a business. But our HR leaders and our CEO wanted to go further and say: If we’re going to be really intentional about this, it’s not just “ban the box,” but we need to go further. We need to learn. We don’t have all the answers yet, but what we have is a commitment, so we started in Chicago, a pilot program and an initial effort to partner with community organizations to find a diverse pipeline and help [people] understand [how to get a job].
“You know, banks are highly regulated and appropriately so. A lot of people think that “I can’t get a job. I don’t know how to get a job since I have a criminal record. What is the process? How do I go about doing this?” And so, we’re partnering with community organizations to help people navigate that process. They’re going through the same door as anyone else to get a job, but they’re prepared. They understand what they qualify for and what they wouldn’t and it’s been a good success. It’s one that we’re going to replicate in other places.
“I’ll say two things: One, JPMorgan can’t solve this problem on its own and that’s why we really are making a call for all businesses to stand with us and to learn together about how to do this and how to tap into this incredible source of talent and how to understand that a criminal record should not stay with someone forever, and that you are missing out on a whole suite of professionals when that’s a limiting factor.
“10% of our new hires last year, in 2019, are people with criminal records and in 2019, we hired 1,000 people more than the year before with criminal records. We are learning. We are intentional. We are focused and we are finding this to be a very successful effort for our firm. We know that it’s possible for others and that we need to kind of band together and do this….
“This impacts everybody, and you start to say this system just doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense for employers, it doesn’t make sense for families, and this system is designed in such a way that we’ve got to make changes and adjustments and I think, in addition to the research and folks really understanding that means that change needs to happen, we also see how directly this impacts so many people across the country.”
Following Higginbottom’s explanation of JPMorgan’s efforts, Speaker Ryan noted: “JPMorgan Chase is a bell cow…. You need bell cows to lead the herd to the right place and…. having a place like JPMorgan Chase do this is really important. It’s a trendsetter, and it’s exactly the kind of follow through you need after passing a law like this.”
Discussing READI Chicago’s Work to Reduce Violence and Transform Lives in Chicago:
Bringing another practitioner’s voice to the panel was Eddie Bocanegra, who is a senior director of the Heartland Alliance and a leader at READI Chicago, where he works to decrease gun violence in the Chicago area and to help give individuals a second chance at life. You can read more about Eddie’s transformative story here. Bocanegra shared his powerful, personal experience with the criminal justice system and how it motivates him to assist others. He also detailed READI Chicago’s randomized controlled trial (RCT) which is helping to evaluate the best way to reduce recidivism.
Bocanegra said: “There is plenty of research out there that really has looked at both the issue of violence but also useful re-entry work examples. There is a lot of good, promising information out there on what’s working and what’s not working, but for whatever reason or another, it seems that sometimes that information is not communicated effectively to the people who are in a position to write the policy or the lawmakers might interpret in a very different way. Sometimes, I will even make the argument that people are not willing to put their political capital to really make these changes so to hear about the steps that you have taken to move forward in that direction, I think it’s extremely important for us to continue to build on that….
“[A Randomized Controlled Trial] is really the gold standard of research. It’s what we do in medicine to see what’s working and what’s not working. In fact, right now with COVID, we are using that [approach]…. so, imagine that we did the same thing with people. Imagine if we did the same thing in areas where [violence] was extremely concentrated, and that violence typically is driven by 70-80 people who are driving that violence. So, imagine if you were able to test one supportive population and, in our case, what we’re doing is testing whether or not jobs and this kind of behavior therapy really helped us.”
Speaker Ryan discussed why having randomized controlled trials, like the one being conducted by READI Chicago, makes a difference to policymakers as he recounted an episode during the consideration of the First Step Act: “I remember when we were pushing this bill in the House, a senior person in my party showed me some campaign commercials that were going to be run against us if we passed this legislation. [The commercials were] showing that we were soft on crime, showing that we were going to be harming our constituents and this and that. There was a lot of political intimidation against doing things like this and that’s how typical issues work. It was because we had all of this evidence, frankly, from states like Texas which showed we can actually make a difference on all fronts by reducing violence, by creating redemption, by getting people back to work and because we add unassailable evidence from randomized controlled trials that proved if you do it this way, it will work and make a difference.
“This helps take the politics out of it and it helps get over the criticisms that you’re getting something done. So, personally, this is why at the American Idea Foundation, we are basically focusing on RCTs and building a big bank of evidence so that communities and charities and local governments can replicate successful models that have been proven to work and they can overcome the partisan gridlock that usually engulfs issues. Having something like an RCT in Chicago, which is a place that everyone is paying attention to and showing your proven results, I really think that is exactly what is needed to get to the next wave of reforms of redemption and criminal justice policies.”
Examining United HealthCare Community Plan of Washington’s Model:
The policy discussion also featured Cindy Spain, the Chief Clinical Officer from United Healthcare Community Plan of Washington, who shared her company’s experience taking a circumspect view towards caring for individuals and in the process, helping those exiting the criminal justice system land on their feet.
As Speaker Ryan noted: “Eight years ago, I went up to UnitedHealthcare, which is headquartered in Minneapolis, and met with Steve Helmsley and his team to talk about treating the whole person in healthcare. If you just only deal with the momentary problem of a health issue that is affecting a person, you’re not going to solve the underlying problem which is the whole person…. I think so many criminal justice issues can be resolved through access to high quality health care and by dealing with the whole person, you really created a really interesting model out there in Washington State…. that really needs to be replicated throughout the country.”
As Spain explained, the local partnerships that United HealthCare created in Washington has led to tangible results and improved outcomes for individuals and families. In describing their model, Spain said: “We actually work with the Health Care Authority and part of our contract is to do some jail transition services work. Previously, it was focused on the behavioral health aspects of mostly incarcerated folks. However, we decided to go into the jails and meet with our former members because they’re in a suspended state of Medicaid at that time, and talk to them about the issues that they’re [battling] to have a successful release to the community and as part of that, our community health workers identify social determinants of health (SDOH) issues that are ongoing, such as homelessness, an inability to connect with their primary care physicians, an inability to get into treatment that they might need, and we help facilitate that as they get released back into the community.
“Many of our members end up getting released directly into substance use disorder treatment [programs]. Some of them get released directly into mental health settings. We facilitate that as well as keep engaged with them after they are released into the community to make sure that they can get their medications, that they have someplace to live….
“We have partners within our health plan on the behavioral health side, and we work very collaboratively with them on mental health as well. We make sure that everything that’s been identified while they’re incarcerated, such as their substance use but also schizophrenia or bipolar, if they need to be connected to those services as they are released back into the community, we work with our partners to make sure that they get those systems set up for them before they are released. We make sure that we have identified providers of those services and that they have agreed to take the returning citizen into those services immediately so that there isn’t any delay and so as they step out that door, they step into a taxi and they get delivered to the door of those behavioral health organizations or primary care physicians or a substance use treatment facility.”
As Spain elaborated, United Healthcare believes that continuity of care and providing individual assistance to returning individuals is key to long-term success for those reentering society. When discussing the duration and nature of the care model, she said: “We stay connected via community health workers who are actually meeting face-to-face with these citizens before they are released. We’ll follow them as they go back [into society] …. and give them all of our contact information, meet with them in the community as they are released and continue to evolve with them if they need to have ongoing care management. We will follow them as long as they need to be followed and as long as they’re agreeable to doing so and gain benefit from it.”