Lama Hassoun Ayoub, researcher and author of Coming Home to Harlem, discusses the impact of the Harlem Parole Reentry Court on the lives of parolees returning to Harlem after incarceration.
The following is a transcript:
AVNI MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Hi. I'm Avni Majithia-Sejpal, Senior Writer at the Center for Court Innovation. In today's New Thinking podcast we're talking about reentry courts, specifically, the Harlem Parole Reentry Court in New York City operated by the Harlem Community Justice Center. Researchers from the Center for Court Innovation recently completed a comprehensive study that explores the reentry court's impact on the lives of its participants, comparing their experiences and outcomes to those of individuals on traditional parole. Their report, titled "Coming Home to Harlem," has yielded some interesting results and can be accessed at courtinnovation.org. Here with me today is one of the report's authors, Lama Hassoun Ayoub, Senior Research Associate with the Center. Welcome, Lama.
LAMA HASSOUN AYOUB: It's great to be here.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: My first question is what is a reentry court and what does it do?
HASSOUN AYOUB: Reentry courts are specialized courts that work to reduce the recidivism of ex-offenders and improve public safety. They work with people coming home, usually from prison, to help them reintegrate into society. They're considered to be a problem-solving court and they're really built off the drug court model that we know is successful.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: For the record, what recidivism entail?
HASSOUN AYOUB: Recidivism is the rate at which people who have returned home from prison after incarceration re-offend. We measure recidivism by looking at a variety of different factors. We look at rearrest, reconviction, and what we call revocations. Revocations are returns to prisons, usually related to violating parole. Of the people who are released nationally, we know that about two-thirds of them will be rearrested within five years of their release. Over half of them will be returned to prison on a new conviction or a violation within five years of their release.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: I see. When people return home from prison, what kinds of challenges do they face as they attempt to transition back into their communities?
HASSOUN AYOUB: There are a lot of challenges associated with reentry. One of the biggest ones is employment. It's very hard to find a job after you come home from prison, especially with a record, a criminal record. Another challenges is housing. People have trouble finding stable housing, and research shows that housing is actually really important to be successful in your reentry. There are also many other challenges such as substance use, getting appropriate services and treatment, and reintegrating with families and children.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Can you talk a little bit about the Harlem Parole Reentry Court. How does it work?
HASSOUN AYOUB: The Harlem Parole Reentry Court works specifically with parolees. Those are people who are coming home from prison to be supervised in the community by parole officers. For a typical parolee, they interact with the staff from the reentry court even before their release. They receive pre-release services that often involve risk and needs assessment and some planning. Sometimes that risk and needs assessment occurs once they’re released. The first thing that really happens with them is that they report to the reentry court, they see their parole officer, they see a dedicated case manager, and they also meet the reentry court judge for the first time.
That's the real center of the reentry court that makes it very different from parole, the fact that they have to report regularly to a judge and have judicial oversight during the time that they're there. The reentry court team works closely together; the judge, the parole officer, the case manager, and other staff to coordinate support services for the client. They also use a schedule of rewards or sanctions, so that means that people get sanctioned based on their behavior, and they also get rewards based on positive behavior. Those are really the elements that are central to the operations of the reentry court.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Who are the participants that go through this court and what kinds of offenses are we talking about here?
HASSOUN AYOUB: The reentry court works with clients who have felony offenses, for the most part. About half of them were in prison for violent offense and another half were in prison for drug offenses. There are also small percentages of property offenses. Most of the reentry court participants have been in prison for quite some time. They were in state prison, which means they've served at least one year. For many of them, it been many, many years since they were home in Harlem. The reentry court does exclude a few people. They exclude sex offenders, arsonists, and people with diagnosed Axis I mental health issues. Just so you know, this population is predominantly male, it's only about two or three percent female, and it's mostly black or Hispanic. Around 97 percent of the population identifies as either black or Hispanic, or both.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Let's turn our attention to the study that you recently completed: "Coming Home to Harlem."How do you go about your research?
HASSOUN AYOUB: The study had four major components. The first component was what we call a randomized control trial. That basically involves randomly assigning parolees to either Harlem Reentry Court or traditional parole. The second component was looking at the official records of those randomly assigned parolees. The third component was in-depth interviews with a subset of the parolees that were randomly assigned. The fourth component was interviews with the reentry court judges. We were actually able to interview six reentry court judges who served on the court over the last ten years.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Based on your research, what kind of impact does the Harlem Parole Reentry Court have on recidivism rates? Can you break down the numbers for us.
HASSOUN AYOUB: Sure. When we looked at recidivism we looked at rearrest, reconviction, and revocation. By revocation, I mean, returns to prison that are associated with violations of parole, specifically, not necessarily new arrest. With rearrest we really didn't see a big difference. About half of the population of the reentry court and half of the parolees are regular parole were rearrested within 18 months of their release. We believe that we didn't see a big difference because this population has a high exposure to arrest. They live in Harlem and they're a minority community.
However, when we looked at reconviction and revocation we did see significant differences. Reentry court parolees were significantly less likely than the control group to be reconvicted within 18 months and we saw a 22 percent reduction in reconviction. When we looked specifically at felony reconviction, we saw a 60 percent reduction in felonies. We also looked at revocations. It's important to know that the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has been working to reduce revocations, generally, so even the parolees on regular parole had lower revocations than they would've had historically. But then we also saw a statistically significant difference, in fact, there was a 45 percent reduction in revocations when we compared the reentry court group to the traditional parole group.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: What about the impact on other aspects of the parolees lives?
HASSOUN AYOUB: By doing the in-depth interviews we were able to explore the other aspects of their lives because it's hard to get official data on things like education or family relationships. Our interviews really provided us with information we wouldn't have gotten elsewhere. We saw significant differences when we looked at employment. The reentry court parolees were more likely to report being in school or having a job at one year after their release. In fact, 75 percent of them said they were in school or had a job compared to only 45 percent of the parolees on regular parole. They also had higher quality jobs. By that, I mean, jobs that give you paid days off or provide you with health insurance. They also worked more hours per week than the parolees on regular parole and they also worked more months in the past year. Because they worked more hours they also had a slightly higher income than the parolees on regular parole.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Were there any other differences that you found between the experiences of participants of the reentry program and those that had a more traditional experience of parole?
HASSOUN AYOUB: We saw some big differences when it came to their supervision experiences. We asked people in interviews about how many times they saw their parole officer, but we also asked them about their perceptions of the criminal justice system, an area that we call procedural justice. In that, we saw statistically significant differences. The reentry court parolees had much more positive perceptions of the criminal justice system. They also had more positive attitudes about the judge that they last interacted with. They also even had better attitudes toward their parole officer. Those were statistically significant differences that we think may also be connected recidivism. I also want to add that the reentry court parolees were also more likely to receive a reward during their parole and less likely to receive a sanction, so only 30 percent of them said they had received any kind of sanction or consequence to their bad behavior compared to nearly 70 percent of the regular parolees.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: By reward, you mean?
HASSOUN AYOUB: Reward could be something as simple as praise from your parole officer, like getting a pat on the back, but could also mean things like gift cards or actual gifts.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: To conclude, what are some of the challenges that the court faces today, and what are the next steps for the Harlem Parole Reentry Court?
HASSOUN AYOUB: The evaluation showed that reentry court model, as implemented in Harlem, is successful. They were successfully able to reduce recidivism and have an impact of the lives of parolees. Many of their challenges today are associated with things like sustainability and expanding the court, making sure that the lessons we've learned from this evaluation and from the work they've done can be used in other areas, and that they can continue to sustain this work and help parolees coming home to Harlem.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Lama, thanks for sitting down with me today.
HASSOUN AYOUB: Thank you, I appreciate it. It's really important for us to share the findings of this evaluation.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: I'm Avni Majithia-Sejpal, and I've been talking to Lama Hassoun Ayoub about the Center for Court Innovation’s report "Coming Home to Harlem," which examines the impact of the Harlem Parole Reentry Court on the lives of participants who are returning home from prison. To read and download the report, go to research on courtinnovation.org. Thanks for joining us today.