The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Since the inception of the War on Drugs and “tough on crime” policies in the 1980s, the U.S. prison population grew from 300,000 to over 2 million. Today, a staggering 7 million Americans are currently behind bars or under the supervision of probation or parole; the vast majority of these individuals are people of color.
Racial disparities permeate every stage of juvenile and adult criminal legal systems. Black youth are four times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, making up the overwhelming majority of youth criminalized and swept into the system. In Alameda County, CA, 66% of youth booked into Juvenile Hall are Black and 28% Latinx compared to just 4% white. These disparities persist into adulthood where Black adults are 13% of the general population, but make up over 40% of the prison population. There is no evidence that people of color offend more often than whites despite these historical and growing racial disparities in arrests and incarceration.
White supremacy drives mass incarceration and racial wealth disparities. From chattel slavery to Jim Crow to the modern-day criminal legal system, there are countless examples of how whiteness upholds a racial caste system in America. Mass incarceration not only locks people behind physical bars but also virtual walls that restrict freedom and mobility. Once released, individuals face legalized discrimination in housing and employment and permanent social exclusion. Locked out of the labor market and having to adhere to a web of laws and rules during reentry contributes to a vicious cycle of rearrest that inhibits social mobility and maintains the caste system.
Guaranteed Income as a Solution
Unconditional cash assistance offers people dignity and self-determination: an income floor to achieve stability and the autonomy to define and build their life on their terms. Guaranteed income for returning citizens challenges the stigma of incarceration and a legacy of punitive and paternalistic approaches that seek to define and dictate the lives of Black and Brown people returning home. This idea that ‘we’ know what is best for ‘them’ is rooted in white supremacy. Lastly, it departs from the longstanding tradition of investing in systems that perpetuate harm and instead directs those funds to people and communities that have experienced a history of discrimination and disinvestment.
Research shows that guaranteed income (GI) programs are highly effective. The Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED) and other programs for diverse ages, genders, and racial/ethnic groups shows that when provided unrestricted payments, recipients secure full-time employment, achieve financial stability, and experience improved mental health and overall wellness. The New Leaf Project, a GI program for individuals experiencing homelessness, found that cash recipients moved into stable housing faster and spent fewer days homeless. GI has also been found to alleviate financial scarcity creating new opportunities for self-determination, choice, goal-setting, and risk-taking. Recipients typically spend their cash on necessities such as housing/rent, food, transportation, education, and health.
Dismantling narratives that dehumanize Black and Brown people and question their deservedness to receive public assistance;
Eliminating state-sponsored wealth extraction through our criminal legal system; and
Establish a truth and reconciliation process in the US.
Community Works has received seed funding to pilot the nation’s first guaranteed income program for individuals reentering the community post-incarceration. The project is funded by the Remy Fund for Racial and Environmental Justice and COVID-19: A Just East Bay Response Fund at the East Bay Community Foundation.
Community Works’ recognizes the legacy of white supremacy and state-sponsored wealth extraction through the criminal legal system and sees GI as an acknowledgment of the generational trauma from mass incarceration and the disproportionate number of Black and Brown people affected by it, as well as a strategy to combat poverty and racial wealth inequities. Income is fundamental to building wealth, but it will not close racial wealth gaps. As such, CW is hopeful this project provides a starting point for a conversation about a truth and reconciliation process in this country and how we can create the conditions for true wealth equity, prosperity, and liberation.
The program will provide individuals with an income of $500 per month for at least 12 months. The money is unconditional: there are no work requirements and no restrictions on how the money can be spent. The target population will consist primarily of Black and Brown adults who are returning home from prison or jail and reside in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Each participant will have access to a peer advocate who is formerly incarcerated and has deep on-the-ground knowledge of the community and local resources. The advocate can link participants to services based on their needs and a financial coach for support with money management. The advocate can also connect participants interested in entrepreneurship to local business incubators and networking events.
Our long-term goal is to explore what level of cash assistance creates time, peace of mind, and freedom for recipients to explore their interests, take risks, and pursue opportunities that lead to fulfillment and wealth building.
From Pilot to Policy
Community Works is engaged in local, state, and national policy efforts to advance GI. As conversations about universal basic income move from pilot to policy, it is critical that we learn from recipients closest to the issues and provide opportunities and support for them to lead these initiatives. A key aspect of the Restorative Reentry Fund is providing leadership and advocacy opportunities for former recipients who express interest in this work.
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“As we hear cries around the nation to ‘defund the police’ we have to ask ourselves whether every role we play in prosecution is appropriate and necessary. If there is a better actor in the community or elsewhere, we need to step back and allow them the space to work.”
– Chesa Boudin, San Francisco District Attorney
By expanding and deepening our Restorative Justice Diversion work, Community Works is building a new model of justice that focuses on racial equity, fairness, accountability, and healing rather than punishment and incarceration. We know that violence is a cycle, and that harmful behavior, when left unaddressed, finds ways to perpetuate itself–reverberating through communities and generations. Our current system of justice fails to address the root causes of harm and violence–perpetrators are isolated in cells rather than held accountable, and the needs of survivors are largely ignored. In order to rethink justice and safety, we must prioritize community and healing.
Our Restorative Community Conferencing (RCC) program, rooted in Restorative Practices, is a paradigm shift away from punitive responses to harm used by the criminal justice system, focusing instead on healing harm and restoring relationships through dialogue among those who were impacted and supporting young people in taking accountable steps to amend that harm.
The United States continues to have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Since the inception of the War on Drugs and “tough on crime” policies in the 1980s, the U.S. prison population grew from 300,000 to over 2 million. Today, a staggering 7 million Americans are currently behind bars or under the supervision of probation or parole; the vast majority of these individuals are people of color. Racial disparities permeate every stage of the juvenile and adult justice systems. Black youth are four times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, making up the overwhelming majority of youth criminalized and swept into the system. In Alameda County, CA, where we provide RJD, 66% of youth booked into Juvenile Hall are Black and 28% Latinx compared to just 4% white. These disparities persist into adulthood where Black adults are 13% of the general population, but make up 40% of the prison population.
No one is currently benefiting from the current state of the criminal justice system, especially youth. Young people who are detained or incarcerated are at increased risk for a number of negative outcomes that can have long-term consequences, such as mental health problems, dropping out of school, difficulty with employment, and rearrest.
RCC is pre-charge and community-held, which means survivors have a voice in their healing, and young people are held accountable for the harm they have caused without being pushed into the criminal legal system. Research by Impact Justice (2017) shows that restorative justice diversion is effective at reducing incarceration, recidivism, and racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system.
CW piloted the Restorative Community Conferencing (RCC) program in 2008 through a partnership with the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office to divert youth ages 17 and under from system-involvement. At the time, the program was one of the state’s only pre-charge diversion programs for youth arrested on serious misdemeanors and felonies. In 2016, based on our success in Alameda County, CW replicated the model in San Francisco, known as the “Make it Right” program, through a partnership with the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. To date, over 300 individuals have avoided prosecution through these programs.
A primary goal of Restorative Community Conferencing is to address racial disparities by diverting young people of color that are disproportionately pushed into the criminal justice system. We do this by training district attorney’s offices on the root causes of the racial disparities in their local justice systems and how implicit racial bias can affect prosecutorial decision making by unconsciously favoring white individuals over other groups. Over 78% of our current participants are people of color, and recidivism rates for Black and Latinx youth who go through the program are drastically lower compared to their peers on probation.
RJD offers a framework for how to respond when wrongdoing occurs. The focus on punishment within the criminal legal system often creates a void as it fails to accomplish the two primary goals it claims: 1) serving to heal the person harmed and 2) accountability and growth for the person who caused harm. Our program fills that void by making a radical commitment to meet the needs of those harmed, those who cause harm, and community members impacted. RCC operates outside of the criminal legal system, therefore, providing space for those affected by harm to have a voice in their healing process and relationships to be genuinely restored.
Since RCC is pre-charge, the person who caused harm does not face additional roadblocks to housing, employment, and other areas of life that follow a criminal record. It also prevents the cycle of arrest, incarceration, and recidivism that is all-too-common among young people who become entangled in the justice system. Restorative justice diversion is also significantly less costly than prosecution and incarceration. The RCC program has an annual cost of $10,000 per case, while probation costs the public $52,000 per individual, and incarceration nearly $430,000 per individual each year. Since 2015, the RCC program has saved Alameda County over $25.5 million in youth probation and incarceration costs. Instead, the millions in annual cost savings from restorative diversion programs could be re-invested into community-based efforts to address the structural inequities and barriers that lead to system contact in the first place, such as health care, affordable housing, and education.
Today, we are pleased to partner with San Francisco’s District Attorney, Chesa Boudin, to ambitiously increase the number of individuals referred to this program and, for the first time, provide restorative justice diversion opportunities for transitional age youth (TAY), ages 18-24. Our formal agreement with the San Francisco DA’s office to include TAY is a critical step toward reducing the local jail population, as they are disproportionately represented in our carceral system. Transitional age youth (TAY), ages 18-25, are also disproportionately arrested and have the highest recidivism rate of any group. While TAY make up 10% of the general population, they account for over 30% of arrests. These young people are impacted by high rates of trauma, poverty, and lack of access to housing and employment. They are at a stage of development where decision-making abilities are not yet fully mature, which can lead to risk-taking behaviors to include engagement in crime.
In June 2020, CW was awarded a $2M grant from the California Board of State and Community Corrections to build project scale and impact, as well as develop the nation’s first regional collaboration of district attorney’s offices and community-based organizations implementing restorative justice diversion across the San Francisco Bay Area.
Restorative Community Conferencing is our answer to the badly broken and deeply harmful system of justice in this country, and we hope that the expansion of this model will provide communities across the nation with a blueprint for transforming the way we address and prevent harm in the future. Expanding and promoting the RCC program throughout the Bay Area and beyond is just one step forward as we continue to find new ways to envision a future where justice heals.
Community Works in-custody programs address exigent public health crises of incarceration that are gravely exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. These vital programs must be supported and permitted to continue within the San Francisco County jails, especially during this global public health crisis.
Due to the grave public health threat posed by COVID-19, there is considerable pressure on officials around the country to reduce incarceration rates and implement rapid re-entry plans. Compassionate release is the best way to protect ill or elderly incarcerated people from becoming heart-wrenching pandemic statistics. But for those left inside who do not meet the criteria for release, in-custody programming and services are a crucial lifeline right now.
Locking people in jails and prisons can destroy family connections, causing generational trauma and perpetuating cycles of violence. Shelter-in-place orders have put domestic violence victims at an increased risk, forcing them into isolation under the intense compounded stressors of staying healthy and navigating unprecedented economic uncertainty. The devastating spread of COVID-19 within carceral facilities has given jails and prisons the leeway to restrict programming and visitation, which are already under constant threat of suspension and elimination. These restrictions interrupt programming that is critical to the support and rehabilitation of incarcerated community members.
Resolve To Stop the Violence Project (RSVP) is a Community Works program that provides anti-violence education for violent offenders incarcerated in the San Francisco County jail. Founded in 1997 in partnership with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, RSVP has documented 82% lower rearrests for violent crimes during the first year after release compared to the general population within the jail system. RSVP is the first program in the country to specifically address violent offenders, the first restorative justice program in a county jail, and the first to bring victims and offenders together in a harm-healing process. RSVP has been featured in innumerable studies, books, magazine and newspaper articles, and was awarded the Innovations in American Government Award from the Ash Institute of Democracy and Innovation at Harvard University.
Over the past 20 years, RSVP has helped over 5,000 violent men examine the roots of their own violent behavior and dismantle male role belief systems in order to work toward healing. The RSVP model is driven by victim restoration, offender accountability, and community involvement. Participants commit to leading a life free of violence upon release, and many men who graduate from the program continue to educate others and engage in anti-violence education work post-release.
In addition to their own rehabilitation and personal transformation, many men in RSVP are simultaneously navigating the challenge of fatherhood. In fact, a majority of people incarcerated in the U.S. have minor children, and 45% were living with their children before becoming incarcerated. Right now, families around the country are experiencing extreme levels of anxiety and worry while trying to stay updated on the wellbeing of their incarcerated loved ones. With prison and jail visitation suspended, children are unable to see their incarcerated parents in person, and most contact is limited to only paid phone calls – which can be even more disorienting and upsetting for young children than the already tense environment of standard in-person visitation.
Community Works’ One Family program provides incarcerated parents the opportunity to participate in parenting classes, individual therapeutic counseling, and in-person parent child visits to practice the skills of openness, accountability, and empowerment in a safe and supportive environment. Under the current COVID-19 restrictions, One Family staff are working to provide alternative forms of visitation for these families and ensure that they can remain connected during this incredibly tumultuous time. One Family helps to mitigate the trauma of parent-child separation that results from incarceration, an adverse childhood experience that can lead to serious life-long health consequences. The program ensures that the parent-child relationship can remain in-tact despite the parent’s incarceration, and that families can be set up for healthy relationships upon the parent’s release.
One Family started as an initiative in September 2008 led by Community Works in partnership with the Sheriff’s Department and the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership. SFCIPP was working to provide quality visits for CPS-mandated families, and chose to partner with Community Works to create the One Family Program with funding from the Zellerbach Family Foundation. The program has led to the creation of high quality, child-friendly visiting rooms in the women’s jail and the men’s maximum security jail. In addition to education and visits, One Family provides therapy for parents who are struggling within the environment and works with them to address their traumatic histories to make changes and create new futures for their families.
Community Works recently partnered with the Urban Institute to develop a toolkit for replicating the One Family program in other jail facilities around the nation. The resulting report,Model Practices for Parents in prisons or Jails: Reducing barriers to Family Connections, identifies some ideal practices that can support correctional administrators’ efforts to remove barriers that inhibit children from cultivating or maintaining relationships with their incarcerated parents during and immediately after incarceration.
The One Family program has partnered with many other leading institutions and service-providers, including the Drug Dependency Court, The No Violence Alliance, The Bridging Group, the California Institute of Integral Studies, and Jail Psychiatric Services. Through a contract with the San Francisco Human Services Agency, One Family works with parents in custody in danger of losing their child to the child welfare system. One Family staff members work together with child welfare social workers to support these incarcerated parents and their children. Even in cases where families cannot be reunited, One Family staff are able to assist with finding a relative to care for the child while the parent remains in custody.
RSVP and One Family are vital programs that equip people experiencing incarceration with the skills to repair and maintain healthy relationships with their loved ones, decrease violent behavior and recidivism, and put an end to the cycles of harm caused by crime and our justice system. Now, more than ever, these programs must be preserved and accommodations must be made to allow participants to continue making strides toward personal growth and healing.
In honor of #GivingTuesdayNow, Community Works is calling on our supporters and partners to support the One Family program and #KeepFamilliesConnected. Click here to learn how you can help.
San Francisco Public Library will host an exhibit this fall showcasing artwork made in Community Works programs over the past two decades.
Community Works’s groundbreaking programs and projects have served the Bay Area for more than 20 years. One of the most impactful ways that CW catalyzes understanding and change is with large-scale public events that give voice to marginalized communities through the creative and performing arts. These public events bring together diverse communities to educate, inform, transform and heal.
We offer this exhibition, which will be on display through December 2019, as a way to create connection and understanding. The pieces being shown are individual and collaborative works that are the visual creative expressions of people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. The artwork is informed and inspired by the deep inner work that we do as members of healing circles. We sit in circle to understand how we have harmed, how we have been harmed, what relationships have been impacted, how we can take full accountability for our actions, and what needs to be done to repair what has been broken. Individual stories are expressed through creative arts and shared with the larger community to tell our collective story of disconnection and reconnection between each other, our environment, and ourselves.
The September 29th Opening Reception will feature an exclusive screening of The Making of (Un)Common Ground
The opening reception of Reconnect the Disconnect will feature the premiere of an unearthed 20-year-old and never before seen video, “The Making of (Un)Common Ground,” about the original theater production of the same name, produced by Community Works and directed by Roberto G. Varea. (Un)Common Ground opened in 1999 to sold-out audiences at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and then at The Lorraine Hansberry Theater. Over a five-month period in 1999 five formally incarcerated men and five women survivors of violence, unknown to one another, would come together under the direction of Roberto Varea. They would share their stories and heartbreaks and support one another to explore the impact of their violence and victimization ultimately regaining a sense of power in their lives to become their own agents of healing. The ensemble created (Un)Common Ground.
The video is a compelling glimpse into the creative and heart-wrenching process of the two uncommon groups working together toward healing and restoration. It is a glimpse into the theater project that provided them the vehicle, the opportunity to take the journey, and the audience to be witness to it. The Director and the performers will be part of a panel after the screening.
The women of Rising Voices debuted their original performance piece, Deception of the Heart, last month during the First Annual Community Works Youth Theater Festival in San Francisco. The piecefocuses on experiences of domestic violence, survival, and healing.
Deception of the Heart is an original piece created by the women in the Rising Voices program, who channeled their own lived experiences to create a powerful collaborative story. The piece uses poetry, theatre and dance to address the many sides of domestic violence. Through their performance, the artists hope to inform others about the warning signs of unhealthy relationships, how easily one can become trapped in a cycle of violence, and the strength required to achieve healing. Afterward, the audience is asked to participate in a facilitated dialogue around their own experiences with domestic violence, and how to support friends or loved ones who may be in a violent relationship.
Rising Voices is Community Works’ arts program for young women, ages 18-25, at various stages of reentry post-incarceration. The program includes weekly support meetings, where participants hold restorative justice circles, learn mindfulness techniques, and find healing through art. Over the course of the program, the women in the group are led through writing and performance exercises and work together on a collaborative performance project, drawing from their own experiences. Rising Voices also works with women inside the SF County Jail, and the material generated in those workshops is incorporated into the performances and other projects. Upon release, these contributors are encouraged to join the support circles with their fellow artists on the outside.
For youth with incarcerated parents, graduation can be a bittersweet milestone. We created the scholarship program because we want the Project WHAT! youth to know that there are people in their community who care about them, who are proud of them, and who want them to succeed.
Project WHAT! is the only organization that provides scholarships for children of incarcerated parents, and we’re proud that we’ve been able to award funds to 25 graduates since we started the scholarship program six years ago.
We’ll have snacks for guests, and you’ll have the chance to win some awesome prizes! Bring your wallet and your friends, and enjoy some after-work drinks while you help us send off our graduating seniors and set them up for success as they head off to college.
It all began late last summer when restorative arts facilitator Dee Myers asked restorative justice circle facilitator Jo Bauen whether she would like to collaborate on a mosaic arts project for parolees, sponsored by the California Arts Commission. This seemed like a perfect opportunity for members of the Citizen Circle, a weekly restorative justice circle for people on parole, to try their hand at mosaic arts. It was an opportunity to use the arts to express the restorative themes of truth, forgiveness, conflict, and accountability, and it was an opportunity for the power of arts to uplift each participant and to strengthen the group as a whole. Finally, it was an opportunity for Jo to use her background in mosaic tile work in the context of restorative justice. Needless to say, the Citizen circle accepted Dee’s invitation!
Dee began by leading the group in a brainstorm potential topics for the art project. The Citizens Circle is open to all who care to join, and is made up of equal numbers of parolees and never-incarcerated individuals. Participant spoke of their desire to rebuild their identity, to deal with racial profiling, and to successfully transition from prison to free society. We discussed our values and guidelines, and established group safety. Dee helped build confidence with arts-based team building exercises. Based on participant input we organize a 10 week program that resulted in 14 stunning mosaic self-portraits.
Mosaic requires a lot of physical materials: broken tile, pebbles, mirrors, artifacts, backer board and adhesive. Preparing the tile takes a variety of tools: diamond saw, neighbors, score and snap, hammers, eye and skin protection. Week by week the project grew to fill large community space. Each week we had to line the floors with drop cloths, prep the mosaic materials for 15 participants, organize the setting materials, the tools, and the safety equipment. Each week the participants arrived, looked at our enormous set up, and for the most part everyone got to work. Some people jumped right in, others hesitated, chatted, and hung in the background. A few resisted but that was OK, we set up a space for people to chill. Mosaic is slow and there is a world of options for how one might proceed. But shoulder to shoulder, women and men, white and black, incarcerated or never incarcerated, timid artists and brave, proceed we did.
The project continued through the summer, and at last, one or two portraits were nearing completion. That inspired other artists to attempt completion. Soon it was time to grout the initial artworks. Grouting is messy, frustrating, difficult, destructive to your skin and eyes, and did I say messy? But then we grouted a couple pieces, and they started to shine. At last all pieces were finished. We mounted them in a sunny conference room and had track lights installed so the artwork is featured.
On April 16, 2019, CWW hosted an evening of food and music to honor the artwork. A large crowd stood circle-fashion to hear from the artists and to offer our hopes for all men and women reentering society from prison. People said, “I hope they all learn to forgive themselves.” “I hope they find connection and love.” And, “I hope they find a circle of trusting people who help them rebuild their lives like this one.”