Root & Rebound—Our Story—A Post for Reentry Central
By Katherine Katcher, Founder & Executive Director
Root & Rebound’s mission is to increase access to justice and opportunity for people in reentry from prison and jail, and to educate and empower those who support them, fundamentally advancing and strengthening the reentry infrastructure across the state of California. Root & Rebound works to bring reentry legal information to a wide range of people impacted by and working at the frontlines of the criminal justice system--individuals, loved ones, and advocates--by creating tools, resources, coordination, and readiness support that take the guesswork out of reentry and give people the resources to find their own way.
I founded Root & Rebound because I believed, after working on prison and criminal justice issues in law school, that the system of reentry was broken, but a place of great hope. When people have the chance to do better, to try again in society, they are filled with motivation, passion, and determination. I saw that in a moment where people with records needed support to do better, they were set up to fail.
Over the last forty years, as mass incarceration grew in our country, so did legal barriers that had been established in almost every area of life for people with a record, including an inability to get an ID or open a bank account, enormous court debt, denials of employment, housing, and public benefits. The American Bar Association has determined that nationally, people with criminal convictions face up to 44,000 federal, state, and local restrictions—not including illegal discrimination.
When we began our work, our question was how a group of attorneys could effectively help to improve the lives of people in reentry in the face of so many legal barriers. In our first year, we served over 100 clients through a traditional direct service model and tried to practice as “generalists,” taking on issues as they came up: when people in reentry had issues, we worked with them intensively to find solutions. We learned about parole and probation conditions, employment and housing barriers, family law and child support, and court ordered debt, among many others. Yet we soon realized that if we wanted to make a bigger impact on such a massive issue, we needed to think differently about the role we could play and the solutions we as attorneys could develop.
With more than 50,000 people in reentry from prison and jail in California alone and thousands of barriers across all areas of life—there needed to be a broader solution. We needed to serve as a resource that could meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of people grappling with these issues across the state who would never be able to make it to our office for support. We also found that information on the law, legal rights, and navigating systems was buried and impossible to find. If we, as attorneys, found it difficult to answer these questions and help our clients navigate obstacles in reentry, how could we expect our clients to do so--or the social workers, family and friends, and case managers who worked with them?
Across the nation, these groups are the frontline supports for people in reentry and also lack the necessary legal guidance to navigate critical and often crippling issues. The lack of an integrated, knowledgeable, and supported reentry infrastructure undermines the spirit and intent of reform efforts to reduce incarceration levels.
In essence, we came to see that legal support for this population needs to be large-scale and far-reaching in design to meet the enormity of need, and cannot follow the traditional legal aid model of one attorney per client, working on one specific issue or area of the law. As a 2013 study from the National Center for State Courts found:
“Much of the national discussion about equal access to justice has centered on more funding for legal services…(Yet) without proper skills and knowledge about how the courts can help them and how to avoid further such problems, individuals in difficult circumstances may find themselves entrenched in poverty and legal problems. Education should be part of any strategy to ensure equal access to the courts. Many individuals are not even aware that their problems may have a legal resolution.”
So, six months after starting our small legal office, we began working on the first step of solution—a comprehensive resource that could answer these questions for the tens of thousands of people in need across the state. After 14 months of research and writing by a team of 2 staff, 4 law clerks, 10 interns, and countless volunteers, we published the "Roadmap to Reentry: A California Legal Guide," in May 2015. Available in print and online, the guide covers the major barriers in reentry in nine areas of law and civic life: housing, public benefits, parole & probation, education, understanding & cleaning up your criminal record, ID & voting, family & children, court-ordered debt, and employment. It is meant for a broad audience: people preparing for and in reentry as well as their families, social workers and case managers, teachers, community supervision officers, and attorneys.
To bring this information to more communities, we partner with organizations across California who are working to support people in reentry, and their families, so that we together can ensure each person coming home is reentry-ready. We conduct trainings on this material throughout California for people in reentry, their friends and family, case managers, social workers, attorneys, and community supervision departments. We work to create online resources, video and web content, interactive toolkits, and other educational material, based on the guide.
To provide direct technical assistance, we run a weekly reentry legal hotline, the first in the United States—a free resource, staffed by attorneys and law student volunteers. Through the hotline and letter writing, we provide more direct assistance on individuals’ specific cases and issues. Using the “Roadmap to Reentry” guide as the frontline tool, our staff answers reentry-related questions, helps solve issues, and provides critical resources and information.
To further policy reform and create broader systemic change, Root & Rebound documents the barriers on the ground and the experiences of individuals and communities in order to partner with national policy reform groups and litigation firms to inform these groups about major issues we hear and see on the ground. Through this feedback loop, we push for an improved reentry infrastructure that will better prepare and support people before and during their reentry and lower recidivism rates, resulting in fewer people in prison and jail.
Although the “Roadmap to Reentry” guide is currently California-specific, our model is highly replicable and we hope to have the opportunity to expand to other states in the coming years. If you or your organization is interested in partnering with us in bringing this model to new states, please reach out!
We hope you will take a moment to learn more about our work and the issues we are so passionate about! You can do so by visiting our website and watching our Stories of Reentry campaign.