MORGANTOWN – Noted criminal justice system critic Ann Jacobs delivered the Charles L. Ihlenfeld Lecture on Public Policy and Ethics Feb. 3 at the West Virginia University College of Law.
Jacobs, formerly the executive director of the Women’s Prison Association in New York City, is the current director of Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, also in New York.
The Ihlenfeld Lecture allows WVU to annually bring a diverse selection of legal minds to speak on ethics, advocacy and public policy.
In a series of email exchanges with The West Virginia Record, Jacobs provided insight in what roll the PRI plays in assisting recently released prisoners and what she hopes attendees took away from her lecture.
According to Jacobs, The PRI develops, manages and evaluates prisoner re-entry projects.
“The mission of the Prisoner Reentry Institute is to spur innovation and improve practice in the field of reentry by advancing knowledge,” she said. “'This is done by translating research into effective policy and service delivery, and fostering effective partnerships between criminal justice and non-criminal justice disciplines.”
Jacobs says that prison reentry requires the formerly incarcerated to build an entirely new life for themselves. But an often-overlooked element is access to education, especially higher education.
“We concentrate on where they are going to live, how they will support themselves, their reunification with families and children, their health, and their compliance with conditions of their release. We need to also focus on ensuring that people have access to education because education is truly transformational," Jacobs explained. “People who have access to college in prison and after incarceration demonstrate incredible accomplishments, have very low recidivism and are truly able to support themselves and their families.”
Besides the lack of access to education, Jacobs contends that the biggest roadblocks facing prisoners getting back into society are the availability of safe and affordable housing that people on limited incomes can afford and the litany of local civil ordinances that create barriers to reentering society.
“There are literally thousands of civil laws on the books that create barriers to people being able to construct a life,” Jacobs explained. “These 'collateral consequences' of conviction can last a lifetime and keep a person from being able to vote, live in public housing, to become a barber or cosmetician, from having a driver's license, from being a foster parent, from eligibility for food stamps. The American Bar Association cataloged 44,000 collateral consequences on the books. We have to curb our insatiable appetite for compounding punishment and instead focus on creating the opportunities and supports that enable people to become self-sufficient."
Jacobs says she is hopeful the Trump administration will bring some needed changes to the system as it relates to prison reentry.
“Justice, fairness, opportunity and second chances are central American values. We must recognize that people are more than the worst thing that they have done in life. There is much benefit that accrues to our families, communities, and society when we treat people with dignity and give them the chance and the resources to change their lives.”
Charles L. Ihlenfeld served as an attorney for nearly 56 years and was a former mayor of Wheeling. According to WVU, Ihlenfeld dedicated his life to public service. The lecture series was established to honor his contributions to the community and the legal profession.