The University of Baltimore Law Forum held a symposium Nov. 12 devoted to the challenges faced by former inmates as they return to society, as well as to the unique concerns of veterans involved in the justice system.
The first panel, “Rebounding From a Criminal Conviction,” was moderated by Michele Nethercott, director of UB’s Innocence Project Clinic. Three of the four panelists were UB law alums: Kate Wolfson, J.D. ’12, director of the Public Safety Compact at Baltimore’s Safe and Sound Campaign; Becky Kling Feldman, J.D. ’02, chief of the Post Conviction Defenders Division (formerly the Collateral Review Division) at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender; and Del. Curt Anderson, J.D. ’87. They were joined by Khyla D. Craine, assistant general counsel at the NAACP.
Nethercott began by asking the panelists why the issue of prisoner reentry had begun to gain traction in Maryland and across the nation.
Craine responded that it was becoming “politically feasible” to discuss reentry now that some conservative lawmakers have embraced the idea of reducing the prison population as a way of saving money.
“It’s economically in their best interest,” she said.
Anderson, the chairman of the Baltimore City delegation in Maryland’s House of Delegates, said political progress on issues such as expungement and sealing of criminal records was not as swift as it might seem.
“We’ve been working on this for seven, eight years,” he said. “We put the bills in and watched people roll their eyes.”
Anderson added that legislators were not inclined to fret about the difficulties former inmates face in securing employment, benefits and housing.
“They are being punished,” he said, summing up lawmakers’ prevailing mindset toward people with a criminal history.
But, he continued, it’s clear that ex-offenders’ troubles reentering society hurt not only the individuals themselves but society in general.
Said Anderson: “We as a state have a responsibility to at least acknowledge the fact that consequences contribute to a recidivism rate.”
Another question concerned the collateral consequences of incarceration.
Kling Feldman said most ex-prisoners suffer from some form of PTSD, after months or years in an environment in which violence, noise and lack of privacy contribute to overwhelming stress. Plus, she said, inmates are unwilling to show their feelings for fear of being targeted as “weak.”
“This is where we send people who need help,” she said, adding that only the most severely disturbed prisoners receive treatment for mental health concerns.
Wolfson put former inmates’ predicament in a nutshell.
“People will reoffend because they need to eat,” she said. “They’re desperate.”