Jennifer Johnson has been working with San Francisco's mental health court to provide gender specific services for women since 2005. She is a founding member of San Francisco's Behavioral Health Court and one of the organizers of The Road Forward, a fundraiser to benefit women as they transition out of custody and into the community.
Arcelia Hurtado (AH): Tell us what is going on in California with incarcerated women.
Jennifer Johnson (JJ): In times of economic prosperity, women in jails and prisons are an underserved population. In times of economic despair, they are forgotten. California is currently embarking on the biggest shift in criminal justice policy in decades as it enacts AB109, known as "realignment." The stakes are high and the opportunity is unprecedented as communities craft new approaches to incarceration and rehabilitation.
AH: What is The Road Forward?
JJ: The Road Forward is raising money to renovate the San Francisco Sheriff's Department's Women's Resource Center to create an optimal environment for helping women reclaim their lives.
Two community programs, Behavioral Health Court and the Women's Resource Center, are working together to ensure that women are not lost as the realignment process unfolds. Both programs have independently provided quality gender-specific treatment for years and they are joining forces streamline and enhance those services.
The October 26th event marks the beginning of a capital fundraising campaign and we have great allies in this effort: Equal Rights Advocates, California Pacific Medical Center, and Women Defenders of California.
AH: What do you mean when you say "helping women reclaim their lives?"
JJ: The Women's Resource Center serves women who are leaving jail and prison. The Center provides access to an array of coordinated services to help women find employment, sustain recovery, improve mental health, link to quality health care, and reconnect with their families and the community.
These services are going to become increasingly important as we see dramatic changes in criminal justice policy take effect across California.
AH: What are the changes?
JJ: There are two big changes that will result in an increase in the number of women who come into the community from either jail or prison.
First, the United States Supreme Court is forcing the state to release tens of thousands of inmates because the overcrowded conditions amount to cruel and unusual punishment. One of the state's proposals to address the situation is to allow more than 4,000 mothers serving time in state prison to return to the community.
Second, a recent change in California law will increase the number of women released from jail. AB109, or "realignment," will shift the responsibility for housing and supervising low-risk, non-violent offenders from the state to individual counties. What this means is that women who would have gone to state prison will now serve local sentences and remain on county probation.
AH: Why is the involvement of a women's rights group like Equal Rights Advocates important to your cause?
JJ: We are so lucky to have the support of Equal Rights Advocates. One of the most important aspects of treatment is our Supported Employment program. A few years ago, one of the main community mental health providers, Citywide Case Management, started an effort to find competitive jobs in the community for people with mental illness.
What we discovered is that most women want to work and can work -- even those with serious and persistent mental illness. We had been setting our expectations too low. When we saw how well the employment program was working, we started to view our clients through a different lens. And our clients started viewing themselves differently.
ERA has been fighting gender discrimination in the workplace for decades. Having their support lends credibility to our effort. ERA has the expertise to help us fight not only gender discrimination, but also the stigma of having a criminal past, mental illness, drug addiction and the lack of a work history. Once these barriers to women's employment are removed, they can begin to restore their self-esteem, regain a sense of meaning and purpose, and have a reason not to reoffend.
AH: There are communities in California that fear this drastic change in public policy will impact public safety. How would you respond?
JJ: I see this as the greatest opportunity we've had in 30 years to reverse decades of failed criminal justice policy. Mass incarceration for drug crimes has been a disaster. What it has done is trap a whole generation of women in a desperate cycle of incarceration, psychiatric hospitalization, drug addiction and homelessness.
The change in policy can begin to undo this damage.
AH: Won't this put the public safety at risk?
JJ: No. Not if we provide women with what they need as soon as they are released from custody. What puts the community at risk is releasing people to the street without connecting them to services. That just sets them up for failure and leads to high rates of recidivism. Sadly, that is the norm.
Fortunately, we have alternative solutions. The San Francisco Behavioral Health Court (BHC) has developed an approach to reentry that actually increases public safety. The program addresses multiple layers of need for newly released women -- housing, access to health care, mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, and employment. And it works. BHC is the subject of a peer-reviewed study showing that the court reduces both recidivism and violence dramatically.
AH: Do you have a specific example of a how this alternative approach has worked?
JJ: I do. I have a client, M., who I have represented for many years. When her case was assigned to me she was cycling in and out of the criminal justice system and was on a path to state prison. Over the years she's been charged with assault, drug sales, and drug possession among other things.
When I met her she was also suffering from untreated schizophrenia and an addiction to crack cocaine. Along the way, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, had surgery and went through chemotherapy. She has been hospitalized twice as a victim of domestic violence -- once with a broken arm and once with a punctured lung.
There is no way that M. would have been able to navigate all of the service systems she needed to address these challenges.
Fortunately, she didn't need to because she had a lifeline. She's had the consistent support of her intensive case manager at Citywide Case Management who has been the one point of access to all of the coordinated services she has engaged in over the years.
Without that lifeline M. would be in prison or dead. Today she is cancer-free, drug-free and working on getting a small business loan so that she can open her own clothing store.
AH: Is that the same approach that you plan to use to address the expected influx of newly released women into San Francisco?
JJ: Yes. But I think what we are planning improves on what we've been doing in Behavioral Health Court by centralizing gender-focused services in a space that is specifically designed for women and dedicated to their success in the community.
By streamlining access to services, we make it easier for women to meet the demands of probation and parole, remain clean and sober and stop engaging in criminal behavior.
Also, many of these women are mothers, aunts, sisters and grandmothers who are caretakers themselves. By supporting them we are helping the next generation avoid the criminal justice system and breaking the cycle of intergenerational incarceration.
AH: What do you need to make this happen?
JJ: Fortunately, we have many of the components in place already. We have the location, we have great collaboration and we have the buy-in of the community. Beyond that, we know what works and how to implement quality services.
What we need to do now is develop the physical space to increase the number of women we are able to serve. For that, we need money. That is why we are organizing The Road Forward.
AH: Thank you for sharing your expertise and insights, Jennifer. I agree that if we fail to appreciate this opportunity, we put public safety at risk and watch yet another generation of women cycle through our jails, our hospitals, our prisons and the streets. If we take advantage of it, we begin to reverse decades of misguided, failed public policy. We help women become productive, contributing members of the community. And they, in turn, offer their children a chance at a future free from the criminal justice system.
Please join Equal Rights Advocates in supporting The Road Forward. Information about tickets and the event on October 26, 2011 can be found at The Road Forward Facebook page . Follow them on Twitter @theroadforward and for more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Equal Rights Advocates was founded in 1974 and is a national nonprofit legal organization dedicated to protecting and expanding economic and educational access and opportunities for women and girls. For more information, visit www.equalrights.org.
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