On the Failure of Our Criminal Justice System, and What We Can Do to Help

On our criminal justice system’s failure to foster successful reentry of ex-convicts, and how we may fill its role.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The brutal rape and beating of Trisha Meili in 1989 marked the beginning of the end for the Central Park Five, a group of five black and Latinx boys whose lives were derailed by conviction for a crime they never committed.

The tragedy came at a time when our city, then deemed the “capital of racial violence,” was coming apart at the seams. And when the story reached headlines—White Woman Brutally Raped on 102nd Street—it seemed yet another iteration of the age-old, standard narrative of the interracial sex crime. Accordingly, the prosecutors were satisfied with believing that a group of 20 black and Latinx teenagers was responsible.

She quickly concluded that the perpetrators were Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam. It seemed plausible—convincing, even: the group, these convicts excluded, had been committing mild acts of terror in the park throughout the night. And in our crime-ridden city—where all black and brown bodies were treated with more skepticism and brutality than compassion or humanity—the prosecutors were set on their decision. All they had to do was find proof to corroborate their story. Simple.

Except that there was no conclusive evidence to support that the Central Park Five had done it—in fact, all evidence pointed strongly against this conclusion: none of their DNA matched any of the samples from the scene or the victim’s body, hair, and clothing.

Except that the only pieces of evidence they did have were the wrongfully extracted, false confessions from the Five, who—after 30 hours straight of being berated, poked, prodded, and then called liars, criminals, animals—were told that all they had to do to go home was make up a story that aligned with the prosecutor’s fabricated conclusion.

Except that this unjust conviction and subsequent imprisonment meant that they would lose everything. And at the ages of 14, 15, and 16, with their prospects worsened by their disrupted education, they were at risk of never getting their lives back.

When watching The Central Park Five, a 2012 Sarah Burns documentary that details the group’s trials and tribulations, I was struck most by Raymond Santana’s words about how, post-release, his feelings of happiness for freedom were overshadowed by his feelings of immense guilt for the burden he had placed on his family. Five years after the fact, his future looked dismal at best. With a false crime on his record and without a high school degree, his only option, it seemed, was drug dealing. And when he was caught, as an alleged repeat offender, he languished behind bars for two years more.

There are countless untold stories akin to the Central Park Five’s. And though there are now more resources intended to help ex-convicts reintegrate, the fact remains that of the 600,000 individuals released from prison annually, 76.6 percent are rearrested within five years of release. Even having a minor or unjustly awarded criminal record creates far-reaching collateral consequences, making it imperative that our criminal justice system shifts its focus from reincarceration to fostering the successful reentry of ex-convicts into their communities.

But until this systemic issue is addressed, there are measures that every individual may take to help. Raymond Santana had a family able to support him, but the other hundreds of thousands of individuals released from prison each year lack this support. Consequently, they are 10 times more likely than the general public to become homeless. Few can afford astronomical rents in cities like ours, and when former prisoners end up homeless, recidivism rates—the number of released criminals who get arrested again—increase. The need for stable housing for ex-convicts, then, is evident—and we can help fill it.

The Homecoming Project, an effort by the nonprofit group Impact Justice in Alameda County, California, matches hosts with people who were recently incarcerated to help them reintegrate after their release. Through the program, potential tenants and hosts undergo an extensive screening and matching process. Once a pair is matched, they sign a six-month agreement. During that time, hosts receive monthly stipends of $750 and the Homecoming team works with tenants to find more permanent housing. The idea is that after this six-month softened, supported landing, tenants will be better equipped to survive on their own.

That’s because the program provides so much more than just a place to sleep. It endeavors to foster independence while providing both hosts and participants extensive support. To that end, the program offers frequent workshops—for its hosts, topics include conflict resolution, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the needs of people returning from prison. For its guests, topics range from practical help to self-care. And each client is connected to an innovative LifeLong Medical Care clinic in Berkeley, where they get health care and can request counseling

Moreover, each client is assigned a “community navigator,” who then acts as a case mana­ger and life coach. Jesse Vasquez—a current participant in the Homecoming Project—has praised his navigator, noting that, by walking him through various processes such as email registration and doctor’s appointments, as well as introducing him to new neighbors, his community navigator “was essential in helping [him] get [his] roots into the community.”

Though other housing options for former prisoners exist, they are few and far between. Ex-convicts are often ineligible for subsidized housing, and their criminal record is a nearly insurmountable barrier in the quest to find affordable housing. Halfway houses, an alternative, have limited availability and in many cases, are more like prisons than homes. Restrictions on travel, unannounced visits from parole officers, and curfews render residency at these facilities only a meager improvement from incarceration. And these homes often lie on the outskirts of communities, far from resources that people returning from prison need to rebuild their lives, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Social Security office, and hospitals.

The Homecoming Project doesn’t just lack these disadvantages—it also offers other critical advantages. Former prisoners need more than just a place to sleep. They need homes and connections to a positive community, which instill in them a sense of belonging and agency. These are resources that halfway houses simply cannot provide. Furthermore, the average cost of caring for an inmate in a halfway house for six months adds up to roughly $17,246. The Homecoming Project, by contrast, spends only around $10,000 for each six-month stay, including rent, training for hosts, and case-management costs. This initiative proves further cost-effective when considering the implications of reducing recidivism. Less recidivism means decreased prison populations and, in turn, decreased taxes.

Moving forward, the Homecoming Project wants to help organizations outside the Bay Area replicate its model. Though its current 15 participants are certainly a small sample size, the initiative has seen considerable success in realizing its purpose. All current and former participants have jobs, and of the six people who have completed the six-month program, three have gone on to live independently, while the others have continued to live with their hosts under a separate lease agreement.

Accepting the Homecoming Project’s help and creating a similar initiative in our city would be a good first step in addressing the widespread but seldom discussed issue of recidivism. Action is not an option, but an obligation, especially in the context of cases like Raymond Santana’s, in which wrongful convictions unjustly ruin lives and provide little aid as recompense.

But first, we must address the Homecoming Project’s pressing financial concerns: their team’s efforts to subsidize expansion of the program through private and public grants have been futile. This is primarily because, as Chief Operating Officer Maureen Vittoria posits, when a project attempts to radically change the way things are done within a deeply-entrenched system, decision-makers are seldom willing to take a chance on funding it—or to even acknowledge that the status quo is flawed to begin with.

This is where we come in. Our words carry weight, and through advocacy via social media platforms or published essays (as such), we have the power to force decision-makers to reckon with and remedy recidivism. Individual monetary contributions to Impact Justice, the organization that oversees the project, also help the Homecoming Project expand to communities like ours.

And as residents of the city that falsely accused the Central Park Five, as well as—perhaps more pertinently—individuals the same age that they were when their futures were squandered, we can, we must, and we will do everything in our power to initiate such a program.