It's an unusual scene in the criminal justice world: a new parolee released after serving time for a drug charge, meeting at home with his mother and, perhaps, a brother or sister; a parole officer; and a case manager. Together they discuss the terms of his release and what he plans to do to stay off drugs, along with what roles the family, parole officer, and caseworker will play. Much more typically, parolees are released from prison with little guidance or support and only the threat of reincarceration to keep them out of trouble.
But, such gatherings of family, professionals, and parolees are routine for those working with the Parolees and Relatives toward Newly Enhanced Relationships (PARTNER) Project, a collaboration between the New York State Division of Parole and Family Justice's La Bodega de la Familia, a storefront, family-support center located on the Lower East Side.
The PARTNER Project addresses issues around substance abuse and prisoner reentry by developing supportive, family-based teams to help parolees get their lives back together. This approach, known as Family Partnering Case Management, brings together the parolee, family members, the supervision officer, and a La Bodega family case manager—and has the attendant effect of making family bonds stronger.
"The question was whether we could tap the natural strengths of family and the police in working to reduce the incidence of parolees being reincarcerated or absconding," says Carol Shapiro, founder of Family Justice. The question has been answered in the affirmative. Studies of the 1,000 families that have participated indicate a significantly higher incidence of addiction recovery and a much lower incidence of recidivism or "absconding"—where parolees "disappear" to avoid supervision.
Not only have PARTNER parolees shown improved results, but parole officers involved with them have displayed a greater inclination to be flexible in how they respond to lapses, frequently suggesting treatment in lieu of rearrest and reincarceration. Allowance for graduated sanctions that match the severity of the transgression is not possible in standard parole supervision, where an infraction is either ignored or the parolee is sent back to prison for violating parole.
Even though the PARTNER Project is a relatively small program, it is garnering interest nationwide. With 600,000 prisoners released every year nationally, jurisdictions are looking for creative and effective ways to help those released from prison stay off drugs, out of prison, and on their way toward productive lives.