What is a “reentry lawyer”?

We hope everyone had a restful Thanksgiving! We took the holiday weekend to recharge and we are now on a week-long trip in Southern California to visit reentry and legal services organizations—meeting with reentry lawyers, practitioners, and formerly incarcerated advocates in Los Angeles & San Diego.

Despite being in our home state of California, the vast geographical landscape means that the work in Northern California and Southern California is quite distinct. While we encounter similar state laws and state actors in our efforts, the local communities and stakeholders are diverse throughout the state. For example, in L.A. yesterday, we had the incredible privilege of meeting with 5 lawyers at 3 different organizations who ALL do reentry legal services work. We say incredible because of the high caliber of work these lawyers perform for formerly incarcerated clients, but also incredible because, generally, it is hard to find 5 people across the COUNTRY who are doing reentry legal services work, let alone in one place in one day. Very inspiring that people are actually doing some of this important work!

Reentry legal services actually means many different things. The civil barriers that people face are so vast that, when it comes down to it, “reentry law” covers the gamut of family law and family reunification, licensing appeals, credit issues, housing, federal and state benefits, expungement, immigration, and employment discrimination. Another reason reentry legal services differ from one organization to another is that reentry is not a single point in time—it is a continuum in a person’s life. The issues someone faces one year before release, the day he or she walks out the gate, one week or one month post-release, and then well into years of reentry are constantly evolving. The legal barriers to successful reentry do not end after 5 years of living in the community nor do they begin right when someone walks out the gate.

It was, therefore, really interesting to meet with reentry attorneys who have been practicing in this area, some for many years. We were able to ask them why they have chosen to focus on certain client populations and certain areas of the law over others. Some of these choices are naturally made by organizations and individual attorneys who are responding to the needs of particular communities and are informed by those needs. Two groups, a New Way of Life and the LAW Project of Los Angeles have a greater focus on expungement work (clearing people’s records) with a mission of getting people back to work. These clients tend to be further along in reentry. Another group, the Pepperdine/ Union Rescue Mission Legal Aid Clinic has more of a focus on family reunification, credit, benefits, housing, and homelessness. These clients tend to be newly released.

We obviously cannot cover all of the areas of reentry law nor reach all of the people exiting prison and jail in the state of California. For our first year of practice, as we incubate this work in the Bay Area, one of the biggest questions we are trying to answer is where we will start our work—that is, where along the reentry continuum we will focus our legal advocacy and what areas of law we will practice to be most responsive to the needs of clients. While we haven’t answered the latter question as fully (what exact services we will provide), we know that we want to focus on newly released clients, beginning our work with them pre-release, providing a bridge of services from prison to community, and into the first few years of reentry. We have chosen to focus on newly-released prisoners because this is where we see a huge gap. There is no organization in the Bay Area solely focused on reentry legal services for men and women at this earliest stage of reentry, and we have heard time and time again from formerly incarcerated people advising us in our work that there are huge legal and social service needs in this early stage of reentry not being met.

This trip to LA and yesterday’s meetings with five committed attorneys at the three organizations helped us to better understand the various areas of reentry law that we can practice and the nuts and bolts of doing this work. While we aren’t ready to announce exactly what we are choosing to focus on (and still need to do more research, focus groups, etc.), we feel that our service model is becoming clearer, and that something really amazing will come of all of our explorations and planning.

—The R&R Team

Meet Debbie Mukamal, Executive Director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center & Attorney Extraordinaire!


Mukamal

It is only our second official week of work and we at Root & Rebound are already meeting with one of the preeminent experts on reentry services in the country at Stanford Law School. Does it get any better than this?

Meet Debbie Mukamal. She joined Stanford Law School in September 2010. From 2005 to 2010, she served as the founding Director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Debbie oversaw all of the Institute’s projects, including the design and implementation of the NYC Justice Corps, an innovative neighborhood-based reentry service initiative, and the development of research and effective tools in the areas of entrepreneurship, correctional education, long-term incarceration, and reentry from local jails. Before joining John Jay College, she served as the founding director of the National H.I.R.E. Network and a staff attorney at the Legal Action Center, where her work focused on the collateral consequences of criminal records. Debbie holds a J.D. from New York University School of Law and received her B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley.

In other words, she is brilliant and accomplished and, more importantly, so generous and kind. She took an hour and a half out of her busy schedule to meet with the R&R team.

Debbie helped us brainstorm the different possibilities for a reentry legal and social services model in the Bay Area. She asked us to reflect on what knowledge, skill, and experience our staff has that will truly empower those returning to our community. Debbie said, “There are more than half a million people currently incarcerated or on probation or parole in the state of California. You can’t help everyone directly. But you might be able to touch all those lives through policy reform, or make a big impact on a certain population or in a certain community.”

Debbie pointed us to these astounding numbers: At the end of 2012, in California, there were 132,000 people in prison, 79,000 people in jail, 66,000 people on parole, and 419,000 people on probation. These numbers demonstrate how mass incarceration plagues our state and the enormous challenge of taking on the systems that contribute to and create mass incarceration.

Debbie described four common reentry services models and strategies for us to consider as we think about how and where we can be most effective for change:

  • Model 1: Housing a reentry services organization within a Public Defender’s Office or civil legal services organization
  • Model 2: Adding a unit devoted to reentry legal services under the umbrella of an existing non-profit organization providing other kinds of direct services
  • Model 3: Forming a public interest law firm with a strong emphasis on individualized legal services and public policy advocacy where the direct services and policy work inform one another
  • Model 4: Creating a community-based one-stop-shop with wraparound, holistic reentry services that will promote local community economic development

We decided that Model 3 is the best for us to focus and build on. Why? Well, we certainly want to have a focus on legal services & policy advocacy. And, though we want to be community based and integrated, neither Katherine (Executive Director) nor Sonja (Staff Attorney) is originally from the East Bay or even California, so it would be insincere to say we are 100% “in” communities most heavily impacted by incarceration and criminal justice involvement. Rather, we grew up in privileged environments that were not highly policed. We weren’t thrown on the sidewalk growing up as kids, just for being out late and “looking suspicious.” And neither of us has ever spent a day in jail or prison as an incarcerated person, not free to leave.

Rather, we were able to go to school, feel safe, and always be connected to our families. Now we have law degrees that we believe can and should be used for the benefit of people coming out of prison and jail and hoping to reintegrate into their community. Our role, we believe, is to empower those who want a better future than they had past, and for us to play a supportive role in assisting people to get out of prison and jail, stay out, and thrive.

Additionally, having a reentry legal services organization in the Bay Area would fill a huge gap in the local community. Though there are some incredible social service reentry organizations, and a few wonderful poverty-focused legal services organizations, Debbie suggested there might be a need for a comprehensive legal reentry services organization like currently exists in other cities like New York.

So that’s what we have decided to build on: Model 3—a public interest law firm with a strong emphasis on individualized legal services and public policy advocacy. So very exciting!

In addition to all the incredible knowledge about reentry services that we learned from meeting with Debbie, and the “AHA!” moment she gave us, we also walked away with the names of wonderful practitioners and reentry organizations doing work in California, New York, and around the country (you’ll be hearing from us!).

We also now understand and truly appreciate that Stanford’s Coupa Café sells the most incredible Spicy Mayan Mocha. 😉

Debbie, thank you, thank you!

–The R & R Team

What’s in a Name?

Some people have asked us about our name… What does it mean? Where does it come from?

It’s a simple concept, really, that we felt perfectly described the process, at any stage of life, of trying to restart and reset, and how difficult and thrilling and terrifying that process is for all of us. “Reentry” after serving a prison or jail term is exactly that: the human process of starting over, but after years, sometimes many decades, isolated and removed from a world that has changed without you in it.

In Yoga, there is the concept of “Root and Rebound,” or “Rooting to Rebound.” The idea is that, in order for us to grow fully, and be the greatest version of ourselves (physically, mentally, and emotionally), we must first be grounded and firmly rooted into this beautiful Earth.

Our hope is that, as an organization, we are able to help people find their “groundedness” in the world, to reconnect with or reestablish roots, so that they can more quickly become the fullest and best version of themselves. We hope to be a place where people always feel at home, whether it is to come in for a legal meeting, a group workshop, or just to sit in a community space, drink some tea, and read the paper.

So that’s the story… but we also leave “R & R” up to your own personal interpretation!

–The R & R Team

Incorporation Success!

Today is our one week anniversary over at Root & Rebound. It has been a very exciting week, and we are happily incorporated as a nonprofit corp. in the state of California! (Proof below).

 

Incorporation

Also had some wonderful and inspiring meetings this week, which we hope to share with you all very soon.

Thanks for your support!

— The R & R Team