Federal grant to help city’s former prisoners

A new federal grant hopes to help New Haven smooth the path from prison back to civilian life for convicts.

On Wednesday, the Board of Aldermen’s Human Services Committee voted to authorize Mayor John DeStefano to accept a $500,000 grant from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance for the Prison Reentry Initiative. Founded in 2008, the program helps ex-offenders in the Elm City transition back to civilian life after years behind bars. Mayor John DeStefano and other top city officials have called prisoner reentry a leading cause of crime and plan to use the grant money to expand the program. But despite the new influx of money, they face continued obstacles in the effort to serve all the city’s ex-offenders.

“Being able to provide a safety net for [ex-offenders] makes a lot of sense and saves money in the long run,” said Alderman Sergio Rodriguez, who chairs the committee.

Amy Meek LAW ’09, the initative’s coordinator, who testified before the committee, said that the federal funds will primarily help to expand the myriad programs that the initiative currently offers. One such project is the New Haven Reentry Resource Guide, a 96-page directory that provides ex-offenders with information on nearly every imaginable aspect of the reentry process, from voter registration to the hours of area food kitchens. The guides, which are disseminated via non-profits and given out at City Hall, have proven so popular that the city has had trouble keeping up with demand. This past week, the initiative delivered over 30 guides per day, and have designed a mini-guide that could be printed more quickly, Meek said. The city has distributed more than 2,000 guides so far, Meek said.

Meek is also targeting part of the new funds for expansion the Community Empowerment Program, through which the city awards $5,000 grants to a group of local charities that work directly with the formerly incarcerated.

But the city is still pressed for the money and resources necessary to fully confront the problems posed by reentry. Funded exclusively by outside grants, the reentry program at present serves 300 ex-offenders annually — only about a quarter of the released prisoners who return to New Haven every year, Meek said. She added that one project that gives public housing units to the formerly incarcerated has a waiting list that is six times longer than the number of available units. The help of surrounding municipalities will be necessary in order for the Prison Reentry Initiative to expand, she said.

“We’re trying to move towards a more regional approach to some of these issues,” she said.

Jeff Mellow, a professor of criminal justice at the City University of New York, said that such cooperation between the city and local charities is an essential element of successful reentry programs.

“All the stakeholders that work with this population have to work in a collaborative fashion,” he said. “Unless everybody in the community is working together, [change] will be extremely difficult.”

The Prison Reentry Initiative will apportion some of the funding towards new programming, such as information sessions in local jails that will outline the resources available to offenders that will soon be released.

The program’s most visible reform to date, the so-called “Ban the Box” ordinance, has proven largely successful. The city law, which passed in February 2009, prohibits the city and the thousands of vendors who do business with it from conducting background checks on job applicants until they are deemed “otherwise qualified” and given a conditional offer of employment.

“Any time you can get a prospective employer to look first at the individual and his skill set … I think that is excellent,” Mellow said.

The ordinance acts as a countermeasure to the increasing use of background checks in the hiring process, which can allow employers to immediately eliminate people with criminal records from an applicant pool before even offering an interview. Though similar laws exist in cities like Boston and Chicago, Meek called New Haven’s measure “overwhelmingly successful” because it provides an easy way for former prisoners to challenge companies that reject their applications because of past convictions.

Approximately 25 prisoners are released back into New Haven every week, according to the city. Nationwide, according to the Bureau of Justice statistics, approximately 650,000 prisoners are released each year.

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