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While watching the U.S. Men’s Soccer team compete in the World Cup game against Belgium yesterday, I couldn’t help but draw some analogies to our continuous efforts to win on the community reentry field.

Our soccer team certainly has come a long way from the World Cup of four years ago. The careful analysis of the US team’s strengths and weaknesses, thoughtful planning to capitalize on the skills of exceptional individual players and the day in and day out willingness of all to endure grueling conditioning and workout schedules, has catapulted the team to among the world’s best. Yet, in spite of smart, thorough analysis and planning, talent, skill and tremendous work, our team didn’t make it quite as far as we would like. Sound familiar?

Like many of you, I’ve spent quite a few years working in the middle and back-end portions of the criminal justice field. I’ve struggled with the sheer volume of offenders to prepare for community reintegration, how to best assess their needs, what areas to address in prison and jail, how and in what dosage; how to sequence programming and services so things hang together well, make sense and don’t overwhelm; how to structure transition as a step-down and not a step off a cliff… A few years back, I recall sitting in my office reviewing all the pieces of the reentry puzzle we had tackled, and the ways we tried to ensure from an individual level that the preparation for going home made sense and provided tangible skills and strategies and not just general advice like “stay away from the people, places and things” that got you in trouble in the first place. The 50,000 foot view looked pretty good, not perfect, but then I considered some of the recidivism results; not so encouraging and in some cases, maddening and seemingly inexplicable.

And here’s what I’ve come to…if we want fewer victims and better, more meaningful opportunities for all citizens to live fulfilling, law-abiding lives, we need to reimagine our opening chapter. We need to start at the beginning, not the middle and certainly not the end. There is plenty of research on major risk factors for criminal behavior and many of these factors are present in very young children; even those in the cradle. And while we might not be able to do anything about a child being born into circumstances where his parents have criminal records (risk factor), we darn sure can target that child to receive services and supports. When we focus our resources too much on the middle, we will be disappointed and frustrated in spite of good efforts. Why? Because in the system’s middle we must constantly battle “history,” plus the brutal whiplash that the community disconnect creates for every person removed and his/her family. This is not to say that we shouldn’t care about reentry; we should, but we should shift our thinking, focus and resources, I think, to the very front-end. I’ve been struggling with what to call this as terms like “reentry” or “evidence-based practices” are all-the-rage and in spite of being overused and misused, can serve to focus audiences. We need a battle cry, much like that of the World Cup Soccer fans. Truth be told, I believe we CAN win, if we first wage a massive education campaign to create a knowledge-base about what the risk factors are for criminal behavior both changeable and static, what we can do to prevent entry into the system in the first place and how we can intervene in a meaningful way should some slip through the prevention filter.

I’ve recently had the good fortune to create and deliver a training curriculum on evidence-based practices for DA’s, PD’s, MDJ’s and criminal court judges. I’d say 70 percent of those in my classes have never heard of actuarial risk and need assessments for criminal justice clients. And these are smart, experienced, committed people who want more tools at their disposal. When evidence-based practices are explained, these folks “get it” right away and move quickly to implementation – what specific tools can they get and how can they use them in their daily work. Certainly this is not the “front” focus I envision, but it is a start and an important one. We can and should work with police, prosecutors, public defenders and judges to equip them with knowledge and scientific tools to inform decisions about arrest v. citation, plea deals and the critical decision of who needs to be incarcerated pre-trial. In my experience, “turning” a few critical players in local communities, can create a quick-falling domino effect and in this case, this is exactly what I think we want. Many days, I wonder how the battle cry for change isn’t louder and more high-pitched then it is; one in eight adult Americans with an arrest record ; African-American men with 30 percent lifetime likelihoods of spending a year or more in prison. This is unacceptable. We need to reframe our story; less talk about 70 percent recidivism rates and more talk and work on affordable, universal pre-K programming; 100 percent high school graduation rates, and higher employment rates.

Let’s start with educating our front-end justice leaders and equipping them with tools they need. We can back-up from there.

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