How to Repair the Criminal Justice System

by Scott Budnick, film producer and founder of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition

About ten years ago, a friend in the movie industry invited me to attend a writing workshop at Sylmar Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles County with the InsideOUT Writers program. I immediately signed on to teach classes, and began visiting juvenile halls weekly to mentor incarcerated youth, while executive-producing the Hangover series. As I was creating hit comedies, I was witnessing firsthand how the cycle of trauma, crime, incarceration, and recidivism destroys individuals, families, and communities across Los Angeles.

But I also saw incredible resiliency. I saw that with support and encouragement, young people whom the system was ready to give up on could change their mind-set, leave crime behind, and contribute positively to their communities. I learned that many incarcerated individuals want to change their stories and begin to make up for the pain and destruction their crimes have caused. They just need the chance. So I left Hollywood in 2013 and founded the Anti-Recidivism Coalition.

ARC works to reduce recidivism in three ways: by providing formerly incarcerated individuals with a positive network of successful peers who support one another through the challenges of reentry; by connecting them to educational, professional, and economic opportunities to help them succeed; and by empowering them to serve as advocates for fair policies that decrease incarceration and improve reentry outcomes.

The Coalition is made up of more than 225 formerly incarcerated members who commit to living crime-free, gang-free, and drug-free; enrolling in school, working, or actively searching for work; and being of service to their communities and one another. Through this network, members reduce association with negative influences that can lead to criminal behavior and instead build healthy relationships with positive peers. The Coalition serves as a source of motivation and empowerment for members, who witness peers working hard to beat the odds and see the opportunities that result from that effort.

While ARC matches members with volunteer mentors, it also offers members critical peer support from individuals who have been in jail and understand the challenges they’re facing. The support they receive from one another is authentic and relevant, and it works. ARC emphasizes the need for formerly incarcerated individuals to find stable employment or enroll in school to develop experience, responsibility and self-sufficiency. We connect members to educational and job-training opportunities, and provide work through partnerships with businesses that are willing to hire system-affected individuals and are invested in their success. For those just released, ARC offers paid internships in our office, providing stability and professional development.

To help formerly incarcerated individuals succeed, the United States needs to prepare them to enter the workforce and support them in securing employment. Our country needs to develop training programs that provide them with valuable certifications and lead to well-paying, fulfilling positions. We need to expand employment opportunities through meaningful partnerships with big companies, business associations, and labor unions.

The individuals I work with are motivated, optimistic, and committed to tackling what’s ahead. They show up 30 minutes early and stay 30 minutes late. They work harder and faster than many of my colleagues in the film industry. They deserve a fair chance at meaningful work, and the right to make not just a living wage but as much as those who haven’t touched the system.

But to focus on education or employment, formerly incarcerated individuals first need stable housing. When released, the majority of members return to the neighborhoods that led them into crime in the first place or, even worse, have no home to return to. To address this need, ARC developed an innovative housing model in partnership with the California Community College system to provide housing, academic support, counseling, and other programming to formerly incarcerated individuals off a community college campus. ARC developed this model in response to members identifying housing as their greatest need.

This brings me to my last point: The voices of men and women who have experienced incarceration must be included in discussions and decisions around justice reform. In order to have the greatest impact on improving reentry outcomes, ARC empowers our members to become advocates for policies that reduce incarceration and improve reentry outcomes. Our advocacy is informed by direct experience and conducted by members. They serve as ambassadors to show policymakers what’s possible when formerly incarcerated individuals receive adequate investment.

Solving recidivism is critical to reducing mass incarceration, preventing future crime and victimization, and ensuring that taxpayer dollars are well-spent on a system that works. But more important, reducing recidivism makes our communities healthier. It means we’re acknowledging and addressing the circumstances that lead a young person into criminal behavior, including trauma, addiction, gang activity, or a lack of support and nurturing.

We all want to be part of a society that offers second chances and provides opportunities to individuals seeking redemption. ARC’s unique model combines support, opportunities, and effective advocacy to change lives and build safe, healthy communities. The success of our model is evidenced by the low recidivism rate of members—less than 5 percent compared with California’s three-year recidivism rate of more than 60 percent. Building on this success, we intend to become a national example to be replicated to help address the recidivism crisis.