Justice committee tackles question of how best to help reentry process: Hire more staff at jail, or increase funding to community nonprofits?

At a Monday committee meeting, a general consensus seemed to emerge: More money needs to be spent on programs for people who are incarcerated at Monroe County’s jail, so that after release, the path back to their communities is easier.

Chairing Monday’s session of the Monroe County council’s justice fiscal advisory committee (JFAC) was Kate Wiltz.

Wiltz, along with councilors Jennifer Crossley and Peter Iversen, were joined by several non-voting members of the committee. Among others, they included Bloomington mayor John Hamilton, city councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith, county commissioner Julie Thomas, and Misty James, who is a reentry mentor and support specialist with the nonprofit New Leaf New Life.

Reentry was the focus of Monday’s meeting. Next up, on July 10, JFAC’s meeting will focus on community corrections.

The meeting that got canceled due to the storm last Thursday, which was supposed to have focused on diversion, has been rescheduled for July 31.

James serves on the JFAC, not as a New Life New Life staffer, but as someone who has been incarcerated at the Monroe County jail. At Monday’s meeting, she recounted a “criminal career” that started in 2003. Her final charge was possession of heroin and a syringe, which gave the prosecutor and the judge an idea of what her problem actually was, James said.

The judge asked her from the bench, “What do you want to do?” James said she told the judge, “I’m tired. I’m tired.” The prosecutor responded by saying, “I’m tired, too.”

And at that point, James said, the judge and the prosecutor and the public defender worked together to come up with a plan and got her into Amethyst House, which provides residential and outpatient services for people with drug and alcohol addiction.

James said, “And that changed my life. I never used a drug again.”

The experience that James shared resonated around the table. The shared view among committee members was that bigger investments need to be made in the reentry process.

What was not as clear for meeting attendees is the right fiscal balance between two approaches to bigger investments in reentry programs.

One approach would add county government employees at the jail, who could help coordinate reentry. A second approach would increase financial support to independent nonprofits that are working on the problem.

Of the seven new jobs that Monroe County sheriff Ruben Marté would like to add to the jail operations, one is dedicated to reentry. A slide in Wiltz’s deck listed the positions that Marté has requested:

  1. qualified mental health professional
  2. substance use counselor
  3. reentry case manager
  4. jail programs director
  5. crisis intervention coordinator
  6. autism and special needs coordinator
  7. legal deputy

Wiltz cited several recommendations from a study by Eve Hill’s Inclusivity Strategic Consulting, among them: “Monroe County should invest in case management at the jail to work with jail and community treatment providers, with supervision providers, and with inmates preparing for reentry.”

Wiltz interpreted that as a recommendation to add employees to the jail. She put it like this: “That, to me, is staff that we need to look at and consider a funding mechanism for.”

New Leaf New Life executive director Jordan McIntire said she sees a potential role for a jail staff position dedicated to reentry issues: “I think like having a reentry person that works at the jail—there are things that they could help with potentially, like maybe setting up employment and things like that ahead of time.”

McIntire added, “But as far as that emotional and social follow-up support, that has to be community led, and community driven.”

McIntire gave a fiscal case for supporting New Leaf New Life in its work, saying, “I really think that investing in community organizations that are already doing the work is going to be more cost effective than trying to recreate a wheel that’s already greased.” She added, “We just need a little support.”

The most recent quarterly report posted on social media by New Leaf New Life lists out activity from April through June of 2023:

April, May and June:
Total # of individuals served: 713
Daily average: 12
Total # of letters received from Monroe County Jail: 353
Total # of new reentry mentees: 58
Total # of volunteers that worked off public restitution hours: 24
Total # of individuals we’ve helped receive SNAP/HIP/Cell phone: 26
Total # of reentry kits distributed: 28
Total # of individuals we’ve helped obtain a copy of their birth certificate: 25

County commissioner Julie Thomas, who joined the meeting on the Zoom video-conferencing interface, was cool to the idea of adding county employees to aid with reentry: “I would offer a bit of caution at the mention of adding Monroe County FTEs and utilizing those …” Thomas added, “I think grant money is much more appropriate, because the organization [New Leaf New Life] is respected for their independence.”

During public comment time, Seth Mutchler said that programs administered by the criminal legal system and by the state are “inherently coercive, and thus are not true reentry to a free society.” So Mutchler encouraged the committee to “seek out and prioritize true community-based non coercive reentry programs.” As examples, Mutchler gave Courage to Change, New Leaf, New Life and Beacon.

The committee is using the sequential intercept model of incarceration to organize its meetings. Diversion is Intercept Zero. Reentry, which was Monday’s topic, is Intercept Four.

The idea behind the intercept model is to identify and intervene at various points within the criminal justice system, to prevent people from entering or progressing further into the system—focusing on early identification, diversion, and alternative treatment options to reduce recidivism and promote rehabilitation. The idea is that addressing underlying issues such as substance abuse, mental health, and socioeconomic factors can effectively reduce incarceration as a solution.

When the county council created the JFAC in May, the council’s resolution set a deadline for the completion of its assigned work—by the end of the year.

But the resolution sets a September timeframe as the target for delivering a report to the full council.

The report is supposed to make recommendations on priorities for funding of mental health, substance abuse treatment, and a new correctional facility. JFAC is also supposed to give guidance on investments to prevent individuals from entering the justice system, reducing recidivism, and promotion of equity. JFAC is also supposed to establish timelines for implementation, and identify funding sources within permissible uses of tax revenues.

The county council, as the fiscal body of the county, formed the committee to focus on the financial picture for the county government’s response to the work of two consultants, delivered two years ago. The reports from the consultants concluded that the current county jail facility, at 7th Street and College Avenue, is failing to provide constitutional levels of care.

The JFAC’s work schedule reflects the timeframe of the county council’s resolution, which calls for a report to be delivered to the full council at the end of the Sept. 18 committee meeting.