Education on Impacts of Incarceration and Reentry Influences Legislators

Author: Jake Cowan and Tom Kingsley
Date Posted: August 29, 2011

In Providence, a partnership between The Providence Plan and the Rhode Island Family Life Center formed around a common interest in using corrections data to gain a better understanding of issues pertaining to the reentry of formerly incarcerated people into Providence neighborhoods, and to use the findings from the data analysis to contribute to local reentry-related initiatives.

The challenges of returning to the community from incarceration include legal barriers that can only be addressed through changes in the law. In Rhode Island, these challenges included that people who had been convicted of felony drug distribution were not eligible to receive Family Independence Program5 funds or Food Stamps. In addition, Rhode Island law barred anyone with a felony conviction from voting until their entire sentence was complete, including probation and parole.

With data and analytic support from the Providence Plan, The Rhode Island Family Life Center published a policy brief on the impact of this ban of Family Independence Program and Food Stamp benefits for every Rhode Islander convicted of a felony for drug distribution. Analysis of characteristics of the sentenced population was used to strengthen the points made within the brief. Key points included that the denial of Family Independence Program benefits and Food Stamps represented a decrease in income for the entire family, not only a formerly incarcerated parent. Using data on the number of kids of sentenced individuals, they were able to estimate the number of children that would benefit from a reinstatement of these benefits for formerly incarcerated people, and the associated cost to the state. The brief was used to inform state lawmakers of the effects of the ban. The brief was instrumental in convincing the legislature to repeal the ban. The ban was repealed in 2004.

The Rhode Island Family Life Center, again with support from The Providence Plan, published an additional policy brief on the affects of felon voter disenfranchisement on Rhode Island communities. Local leaders and advocates worked with the Rhode Island General Assembly to have a measure placed on the ballot amending the state constitution to allow people with felony convictions to vote once they are released from prison. Voters in Rhode Island approved the ballot measure in 2006. Due to the success of this effort, an estimated 15,000 Rhode Islanders gained the right to vote.

In addition to these efforts, the Providence Plan worked with local community organizers to help facilitate neighborhood meetings about the challenges associated with formerly incarcerated people returning to the community. The campaign incorporated key maps and findings from an analysis of corrections data into a presentation that served as an informational tool to help start conversations about reentry. Data about the number, race and gender of people returning from incarceration were presented. In addition, maps were presented summarizing the amount of money spent on incarcerating people in different neighborhoods. These costs were much higher than alternative sentencing and alternative corrections programs advocated for by members of the community. In 2004, 435 individuals attended 20 of these information-sharing events.

This story was initially published in Stories: Using Information in Community Building and Local Policy in June 2007.

This story was written by staff at the Urban Institute, drawn from documents and interviews with Jim Lucht of The Providence Plan and the Rhode Island Family Life Center. The Providence Plan was the Providence partner in the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, a learning network coordinated by the Urban Institute, at the time of the story. All partners ensure communities have access to data and the skills to use information to advance equity and well-being across neighborhoods.

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