REFORM Alliance CEO Robert Rooks speaking on behalf of the organization at a holiday giveback event with PUMA in New York City.
The criminal justice system imposes unnecessary barriers for parolees and defendants on probation, the CEO of a national advocacy group says, some that impede a better path for those trying to return or continue to live in society.
Those barriers include rigid travel restrictions, inflexible meeting times with probation and parole officers and lengthy sentences, Robert Rooks with Reform Alliance told participants at the 2023 Violence Prevention Conference in Houston this week. He and community leaders encouraged residents to find “common sense” solutions to help reduce recidivism.
“If the justice system is saying, this person, for accountability purposes, needs to be on probation, we’re not disagreeing with that,” Rooks said. “We’re just saying, ‘What should be happening while they’re on probation? Should it be a matter of coaching and support?’ Not managing failure.”
The organization seeks to replace what Rooks called the “supervision-to-prison” pipeline with a process that creates clear and fair pathways to work, wellness and stability, he said in an interview before the panel discussion at NRG Center.
During his childhood, Rooks saw a strong, working-class neighborhood in his hometown Dallas become impacted during the crack (and cocaine) epidemic in the mid-80s. His mother moved most of the family out to escape from the environment when the violence started to increase. His father stayed.
“So, I got a chance to live in two worlds … one world was in a suburb, the other world was in the old neighborhood,” he said. “And there was a huge difference between the two. I lost a lot of friends to violence in the old neighborhood and it was there when I was at my best friend’s funeral.”
Although Rooks witnessed heartache and loss, he gained a sense of determination and committed to pushing for states to “manage success” instead of “managing failure.” Especially in probation and parole, he said.
“It’s our job to interfere with the pipeline, put forth best practices, from the standpoint of legislation, as well as toolkits to help states dramatically reduce its probation parole footprint,” he said.
According to the REFORM Alliance, people under probation or parole make up the majority of the nation’s criminal justice system, yet the issue has received relatively little attention.
“These systems create a series of trap doors that lock people back up — not for committing new crimes, but often for things like showing up a few minutes late for an appointment or crossing city lines to pick up their child for school. They’ve become systems that prepare people for prison, not productivity,” according to REFORM Alliance.
The organization’s work had led to the passing of 17 bipartisan bills in 11 states, including Florida, California, Michigan, Georgia, New York, Louisiana, Virginia, Mississippi, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Illinois which created pathways for nearly 700,000 people to exit the system.
Community leaders working together
Rooks said he plans to soon help his home state. Texas has seen some reforms, but issues still exist or have led to more problems in communities, according to Rooks.
Among his concerns are current probation and parole guidelines. According to Texas law, a person could get probation of up to two years for a misdemeanor and up to 10 years for a felony. Texas also has the blue warrant law, an order for the arrest of a parolee on suspicion of violation of a term or terms of their parole. Included in this law is the parole officer’s ability to issue the warrant without the parolee’s knowledge.
City and county health leaders were among those who joined Rooks on the panel to discuss “Restorative Pathways: Reducing Recidivism, Reinventing Re-entry.” Other panelists included LaTosha Selexman, Bureau Chief of Youth and Adolescent Health, City of Houston Health Department; Roshawn C. Evans, author and co-founder of Purely Justice; and Larry D. Brown Jr., Associate Director for Community Health & Violence Prevention Services, Harris County Public Health.
The panelists discussed opportunities on how to help parolees or those on probation contribute to society — and as Evans said, to not feel like they have “invisible chains around (their) necks” or “anchors strapped to (their) legs” that no one can see or feel.
Selexman emphasized how most of the people who are incarcerated come from impoverished communities, which can lead to other issues, such as a person having to take a plea deal because they can’t afford to fight a case. Another issue is not being able to find work after serving their time.
“Work is critical,” Rooks said. “Talking to folks, the No. 1 thing people have asked is the opportunity to work, opportunity to contribute to their families, to themselves and to the community.”
Selexman has been working to help those on probation or parole not only advocate for themselves but to teach their families as well. Evans added that criminalizing poverty has made it hard for people to improve their economic status.
“Right here in Harris County alone, for the county’s budget, we spending 65% on public safety to jails, courts and law enforcement,” Evans said. “And we’re spending literally 35% in the things that we need for basic necessities, for the things we need every day.”
Rooks recommended the community “reclaim safety” or determine what “safety” looks like for the people in those communities who are being affected by the criminal justice system.
He said the community can assist organizations, such as REFORM Alliance, by holding their elected officials and bureaucrats accountable.
“Those restrictions and barriers are not about public safety. They’re about managing failure,” Rooks said. “If it is about public safety, then the probation officer would be helping the person to get a job, helping the person get housing, ensuring that the person is connected to that community.”
For more information, visit reformalliance.com.