5 Million Children

Yesterday, I joined over 400 people who attended Madison Urban Ministry‘s (MUM) Partner’s for Change luncheon, to celebrate all that MUM has accomplished to bring justice to our community, including:

community-based solutions (that) invest in residence, employment, support, transportation and education that reduce recidivism and reconnect returning prisoners with their families and neighborhoods. Since 2006, the two-year recidivism rate (return to prison for either a new crime or a violation of supervision rules) for MUM re-entry services participants is between 5-14% compared to a statewide recidivism rate of 67%.

University of Wisconsin Prof. Julie Poehlmann-Tynan was the keynote speaker at the luncheon. Her focus is on the impact of mass incarceration on children. I have had the good fortune to get to know her previously, and to speak about the school to prison pipeline to her students. With over 2 million Americans in jail or prison, the United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other nation in the world. Remarkably, the U.S. even incarcerates more people than China, despite China’s reputation as a repressive regime and its much larger population than the U.S.

What Prof. Poehlmann-Tynan revealed was that incarcerating so many people has a traumatizing and long lasting impact on our nation’s children, including:

developing negative outcomes in adolescence and adulthood, including substance abuse, externalizing problems, cognitive delays, school failure, truancy, criminal activity, and persistent internalizing problems.

She informed us that:

  • 5 million American children have an incarcerated parent.

This equals 1 in 14 American children. Of course, since our nation has incarcerates a much higher rate of African-American and poor Americans, this also has a disparate impact on poor and African-American children. Prof. Poehlmann-Tynan informed us that:

  • 1 in 8 poor American children have an incarcerated parent; and
  • 1 in 9 African-American children have an incarcerated parent.

These numbers are shocking, and have both a current and long range impact on how children with incarcerated parents learn and develop into adults. While there are more alarming statistics about the impact of these absurdly high incarceration rates, a systems change approach requires examining solutions to stem the tide of mass incarceration.

Fortunately, there are rays of hope. Last week, Philadelphia announced its intentions to close its notorious 91 year old House of Corrections by 2020 due to reforms initiated 2 years ago. For those concerned about safety, it is notable that these reforms have already dropped Philadelphia’s jail population by 33% without causing an increase in crime.

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The reforms instituted in Philadelphia include:

  • Defense attorneys working harder to get defendants released quickly with no bail or low bail, typically without opposition from prosecutors, and support from the city’s judges who are releasing them.
  • Philadelphia police taking more defendants to treatment rather than jail.
  • More petitions for early parole from longer sentences are being granted.
  • More space is now available in the city’s six jails for rehabilitation programs, and less overtime pay is needed for jail guards.

As Philadelphia’s Mayor Jim Kenney said:

The system didn’t work. It didn’t have outcomes that were acceptable. We had a revolving door. Rather than holistically treating people, we’d just lock them up, they’d do their time and then they’d be right back. It’s difficult to take care of your kids, or your parents, if you’re not there.

Kenney attributes two new approaches for making this progress.

  • Early bail review for people still in jail after five days with bonds of $50,000 or less. Kenney said 84 percent of those reviewed were released within five days, and more than 92 percent had shown up for their subsequent hearings; and
  • Police diverting drug-related offenders to treatment clinics, and since December “no one who’s been in the program has been rearrested,” Kenney said.

The city’s chief public defender, Keir Bradford-Grey, told the Washington Post that getting a $3.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation “brought all of us together to really examine what’s going on in our system.” She went on  to report that:

One thing the city’s defender system launched was to place lawyers at police district stations to represent clients immediately after an arrest during their first appearance before a bail commissioner. The lawyers are there 24 hours a day, seven days a week and have handled more than 1,400 cases in the past two years. “Now that we’re able to give judges much better information,” she said, “they have found it very useful when they make decisions. Usually they have no more information than the current charges and the criminal history.” But with more context about the defendant’s past, living arrangement and employment, “people are more likely to be released without a cash bond or with more affordable bond amounts.”

Another key player is Philadelphia’s newly elected district attorney, Larry Krasner, who announced in February, that:

his office would no longer ask for cash bail for low-level offenses, which he said made the system “fairer for the poor and for people of color.”

Prior to becoming Philadelphia’s DA, Krasner was a long-time civil rights and criminal defense attorney. As he said in a news release,

There is absolutely no reason why someone who will show up for court, is not a flight risk, and is no threat to their neighbors and community, needs to sit in jail for days because they can’t post a small amount of bail. It’s simply not fair. We don’t imprison the poor for poverty. This new cash bail policy will not only save the taxpayers money by allowing low-level defendants to maintain their freedom, but it will begin to level the economic and racial playing field in our courtrooms.

While Philadelphia’s progress is laudable, the rest of the nation must follow if it is going to solve its mass incarceration problem which is exacerbating  racial and income disparities at a generational level. To replicate Philadelphia’s success requires systems change. As Laurie R. Garduque, director of justice reform for the MacArthur Foundation, told the Washington Post:

Often the problem is we don’t look at it as systems reform. We look at it as one decision-maker at a time, and you don’t get buy-in from somebody. When everyone buys in and the system begins to respond more thoughtfully, there’s more public confidence and legitimacy, and families and communities are all better off.

With help from organizations like MUM, we can make progress in this area. But voters will also need to elect leaders who are committed to the types of reforms Philadelphia is making because non-profits do not get to decide who gets incarcerated and who is released into society.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

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Frustration is not a Plan

Last night, I returned home from Washington DC after spending four days at J Street’s 10th Annual ConferenceAs Chair of J Street’s Madison Chapter, I have attended many of these conferences as well as a number of Leadership Summits. I always learn a lot about the never ending efforts of Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, and many others to achieve a peaceful and just resolution to decades of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. However, this year, I almost did not attend the conference. My frustration level with American, Israeli and Palestinian political leaders is so high that I truly wondered whether it would be worth it to attend the conference this year.

J Street has wisely invested heavily in subsidizing college students from its J Street U arm and this year was no exception, as 1200 students attended the conference. One of those students was my son, Josh, who after attending college for two years in Israel, at the Technion (Israel’s Institute of Technology), transferred to the University of Minnesota last fall. His decision to attend his first J Street conference was the deciding factor for me to attend this year’s conference.

Yet, despite looking forward to seeing my son, and showing him around the nation’s capital, I remained skeptical about whether my presence at the conference, would help in some small way, resolve the generations old stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians. Despite my frustration, however, I looked forward to hearing what the many speakers had to say, and hoped to find some inspiration.

Indeed, there were many great speakers, including U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders, Ben Cardin and Brian Schatz, NGO leaders, the Palestinian Ambassador to the UN Husan Zomlot, and at least five Ministers from Israel’s Knesset (known as MKs). One particular MK helped me shift my thinking. On Sunday, J Street leaders were invited to a unique opportunity to eat lunch with all the MKs at the conference. MK Michal Rozin from the progressive Meretz party has done a lot of great work including leading the charge to stop the deportation of African asylum seekers from Israel. When she spoke, she understood our frustration, but then said:

“To be frustrated is not a plan.”

She then went on to say that we each have a choice when confronting the winds of change. We can either be the windmill or the windbreaker. Of course, our choice may depend on which way the winds are blowing, but if we do not want to simply get blown over by those winds, we must cast aside our frustration and decide whether to be the windmill or the windbreaker.

Sure enough, this opportunity presented itself during J Street’s Advocacy Day, when thousands of us, including my son and I, met with our members of Congress to encourage them to take concrete steps towards a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. J Street asked me to be Wisconsin’s Team Leader and on Monday, I reviewed our talking points and schedule with our team. However, we noticed that we did not have a meeting scheduled with Rep. Ron Kind, who is from LaCrosse. I have met with Rep. Kind in the past and we were all disappointed that we were not scheduled to meet with him on this trip.

However, one of our team members, Kent Johnson, a Lutheran Pastor from LaCrosse, said he knew Rep. Kind personally, and asked if it was ok if he tried to set up a meeting with him, and we encouraged him to do so. Later that day, he informed us that although Rep. Kind was very busy, we could meet with his staff and Rep. Kind would join our meeting briefly to say hello.

What we did not know until we arrived at his office, was that Rep. Kind was at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing, and along with other members of that committee, he was questioning the Secretary of Labor. We started going over our talking points with his staffer, and then his staffer instructed us to follow him to the hearing room as Rep. Kind wanted to meet with us and would step out of the hearing to do so after he was done with his questioning.

Although I have met with Members of Congress hundreds of times over my 33 year career, I have never been in this situation. Rep. Kind’s staffer instructed us to take a seat and watch the hearing until Rep. Kind finished his questioning, and then led us out into the hallway. When Rep. Kind joined us, I truly expected that he would simply give us a courteous handshake and hello and then return to the important business of his hearing. But instead, he gave us all the time we needed to cover all of our talking points and engaged us with serious questions. Indeed, at the end of our meeting, he had his staffer take our picture with him.

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L-R: Me, Kent Johnson, Rep. Ron Kind, Josh Spitzer-Resnick, Ben Gellman

As MK Rozin said so eloquently, frustration is not a plan. My son helped me get over my frustration with the seemingly intractable dispute between Israelis and Palestinians so I could accept my role as State Team Leader during our Congressional meetings. Kent Johnson refused to allow our frustration with not having a meeting with his Congressman without pursuing it further, and in the end, we had a productive meeting that none of us will ever forget.

While frustration is certainly a legitimate and regularly felt emotion of those of us who want to improve the world, frustration is not a plan. Rather, systems change requires getting past one’s frustration to become the windmill for positive change and the windbreaker against destructive change.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

 

Learning Patience…again

For much of my life, patience was not my strong suit. I often reacted too quickly on both a personal and professional level. This lack of patience often interfered with what I was trying to accomplish. Indeed, impatience kept my stress level at a higher level than was physically and emotionally healthy. One sign of that stress manifested itself in chronic migraines.

While I have done many things to manage my migraines, meditating every morning has not only reduced both the frequency and intensity of my headaches. Daily meditation also provided the added bonus of giving me tools to increase my patience. However, old habits die hard, and recently I discovered that learning patience is a life long venture.

We are fortunate to own some vacation property on a small lake in Central Wisconsin. Each spring we look forward to putting our pier out when the ice on the lake melts. About 2 weeks ago, although the lake had not completely melted, there was plenty of open water off our shoreline, so I decided to put my waders on, and put the pier in.

Once I put the pier in the water, I brought my canoe down to the lake, so I could enjoy an early spring paddle, during which I could explore the remaining ice on the lake.

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Then, the wind shifted, and the ice sheet started approaching the pier. Within minutes, the ice sheet was slamming against the pier and into our shoreline, knocking the chairs into the water.

 

I used the rake I keep by the water to break up the ice that was pushing against the pier so it would not bend its legs. Needless to say, I did not go canoeing that afternoon. In fact, it was a good thing I did not take the canoe out before the ice sheet started moving, as if I had, it may have capsized my canoe. Even if I had avoided that problem in very cold water, I would not have been able to paddle back to my shoreline as I would have been trapped by the ice.

Last weekend, we returned to Goose Lake, and virtually all of the ice had melted off the lake. I put my waders back on to straighten out the pier. This time I was able to go canoeing, and explore the small amount of ice left on the lake.

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For those of us who live through cold winters, we are often anxious for spring to arrive. This year, it has taken a long time, as snow has fallen in April. The lesson, of course, is that there are many things, including the weather, that we cannot control and we need to exercise patience to avoid unnecessary problems.

Patience is the skill which allows us to delay gratification until the conditions are ripe for whatever we are hoping to accomplish. This applies to systems change as well as the weather.

Living in Wisconsin has been frustrating for progressives for the past 8 years. Protests and recalls did not transform the political environment in the way many of us had hoped. However, rather than giving up, those of us who refuse to accept how political leaders have destroyed so many progressive institutions, stay patient and keep pursuing different avenues to turn the tide.

Recent elections suggest the tide may indeed be turning, but when it does, we will still need to exercise patience as reversing 8 years of regressive politics will take time and a systemic approach. With the help of recently energized young people and a huge increase in politically active women, those of us who refuse to be beaten down can use our patient approach to methodically and systemically make our communities better places for all.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.