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By Karen Zamel                 Follow East Palo Alto Today on
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Wednesday, July 31, 2012       
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Ask most people what the primary role of the police is and many will say that the police are responsible for arresting criminals. But a new report just released this month provides insight into another role that the police in America are now undertaking.

The report is called Exploring the Role of the Police in Prisoner Reentry and it asserts that the police can play a significant role in the successful transition and integration of prisoners re-entering the community.

The report is authored by Jeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York; East Palo Alto’s Interim City Manager Ronald Davis who is also the city’s chief of police; and Sarah Lawrence, the director of Policy Analysis and Program Evaluation at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy, University of California at Berkeley, School of Law.

The authors argue that since those who cycle in and out of prison commit a disproportionate amount of crime and since police departments continue to be challenged to do more with less, then the police should be fully engaged in local prisoner reentry efforts – some of which have shown encouraging results.
They acknowledge that there are many who disagree with this view, citing an “institutional and cultural divide.”  

Some police practitioners view their role exclusively as enforcers of the law – and find it difficult to help champion the redemption of those individuals who were convicted of a crime.  They believe that governmental responsibility for returning prisoners to the community rests with parole and probation, not the police. They also say that expanding the role of the police to encompass even a shared responsibility for improving reentry outcomes would constitute inadvisable mission creep.
On the other hand, the authors note that there are also those who view the police as an oppressive, racist criminal justice apparatus that is single-mindedly interested in harassing young men and, whenever possible, arresting them to send them to jail or prison, thereby stifling their chances for successful lives.  For them, “collaboration with the police is tantamount to working with the enemy.”

But according to this report, reentry programs in which police take a more active role in prisoner/community transition are blossoming nationwide.  Police departments across the country are engaging in reentry efforts in a variety of ways, such as providing information to returning prisoners about local services, programs and employment opportunities, and meeting with them at the time of release to offer assistance to increase their chances of a successful reintegration.  

The authors of the report point out that “virtually every major national police organization -- the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), the Police Foundation and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) — has begun to participate in the reentry conversation (See “Publications on Police and Reentry.”).
A survey of best practices by the U.S. Conference of Mayors revealed that prisoner reentry collaborations with local law enforcement agencies are becoming more common (U.S. Conference of Mayors 2009).”  Still, these collaborations and the role of the police are evolving.

The report includes a local angle.  It describes the innovative parole reentry program East Palo Alto implemented in 2006, along with the implementation of its Day Reporting Center and services provided to returning parolees.   The report describes the collaboration between the police and the community as essential to the program’s success.  

In the conclusion, the authors offer this view:  “…for years to come hundreds of thousands of prisoners will continue to return to neighborhoods that are facing considerable challenges.  For police not to acknowledge this certainty and address it head on is, quite simply, a missed opportunity to repair the distrust, improve the effectiveness of a department, and increase the safety of the community members it serves.”

A copy of the complete report can be downloaded from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) website: http://nij.gov/nij/pubs-sum/238337.htm.



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