Abstract: 'a Lot of Stuff Is Spooky out Here:' Re-Entry Needs upon Release of Juvenile Life without Parole (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

'a Lot of Stuff Is Spooky out Here:' Re-Entry Needs upon Release of Juvenile Life without Parole

Thursday, January 17, 2019: 3:15 PM
Union Square 21 Tower 3, 4th Floor (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Daphne Brydon, LMFT, LMSW, Doctoral Student, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Shannon Sliva, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Background and Purpose: In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs that juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences were unconstitutional.  A 2016 follow-up decision (Montgomery v. Louisiana) required states to retroactively apply the 2012 ruling, which affected approximately 2,100 prisoners nationwide. These rulings resulted in the early release of inmates who were imprisoned as teenagers, spent 20 to 40 years behind bars, and served their sentence believing they would live the rest of their natural life in prison. While the rulings provided guidance for sentencing, they did not offer any provisions or funding for services and programming during incarceration, nor at re-entry.  Contemporary research shows vocational and specialized programming at re-entry improves rates of recidivism and successful re-entry.  However, empirical research related to the needs of individuals incarcerated as juveniles and released from long-term sentences is absent.  This qualitative study explored pre-release and re-entry needs of individuals released from JLWOP sentences in the state of Michigan, which represents the second largest JLWOP population in the nation.

Methods:  A cross-section of participants, represented by the State Appellate Defender Office (SADO) in Michigan, was recruited through SADO’s Project Re-Entry during a 3-month data collection period.  Focal participants (n=7) were not incarcerated; each served a range of 26 to 41 years (M=32). Participants were asked questions about experiences prior to incarceration, during incarceration, and upon release. Additionally, to elicit participant-centered perspectives on their needs at re-entry, participants were asked, “If you had unlimited resources to create a program that addresses your top three re-entry concerns, what would you do?”

Data were collected utilizing a narrative case study framework. In-person interviews were conducted and audio-recorded with all participants. Interviews ranged from 75 to 115 minutes. Each interview was transcribed and emerging themes were identified through analytic memoing. Transcriptions were analyzed in Atlas.ti. Open and holistic coding were used during initial analysis. Pattern coding was used as a second-cycle strategy. Participants consented to the review of their case files and were asked for contact information of a support person who could help tell their story. 

Results:  Individuals released from JLWOP sentences were overwhelmed by new stimuli at re-entry.  Participants endorsed barriers to relationships, housing, and employment. They described avoidance and isolation as strategies for coping.  Participants identified support related to the development of communication and interpersonal skills, employment support, and returning to a “positive environment,” as priorities for successful re-entry, in addition to tangible supports (e.g. food and shelter). Participants also noted the importance of support from others who have served similar sentences. 

Conclusions:  Results suggest individuals incarcerated as juveniles and released from long-term sentences have considerable needs, with intervention opportunities during pre-release and re-entry. With decarceration efforts on the rise, the findings from this study highlight the timeliness of advocacy related to policies, resource allocation, and specialized programming for these individuals. Vocational training and employment support remain priorities for this group but an emphasis on relationship-building skills and development of communities of support are of particular significance.