Getting a Finger on the Pulse With Peggy Edwards

peggy edwardsWith an election right around the corner that could mark a sea change in the way Los Angeles County deals with criminal justice reform, we got Peggy Edwards to take a few minutes out of her frenetic schedule to share her thoughts on the age-old battle against homelessness and for a saner approach toward incarceration and rehabilitation.

Peggy is Executive Director of Los Angeles Regional Reentry Partnership, a network of more than 350 organizations of reentry providers, advocates, and other stakeholders. She has been a strategic planning consultant for most of her career and came to reentry work through a work assignment. Peggy is also resuming her role of Executive Director of United Homeless Healthcare Partners next month. She holds a Masters degree in Public Administration from the California State University system.

Peter Laarman: You have a reputation for perseverance and precision in a field marked by repeated disappointments and (often) by official murkiness and confusion on the policy side. How do you maintain your edge and energy in this environment?

Peggy Edwards: You may call it perseverance; others call it stubbornness! California counties have such an opportunity to put best practices into action to improve public safety, to reduce the cycle of people in and out of incarceration, and to help people address the multiple issues that led them to prison or jail in the first place. It drives me crazy to see Los Angeles County miss these opportunities by continuing to focus on incarceration instead of rehabilitation.

Of the more than $1 billion received by this county since the beginning of AB 109 in October, 2011, less than 20% has gone to rehabilitation services and that includes housing, employment, mental health, and substance abuse. The remaining 80% goes to incarceration and supervision each year.

If we continue on this path, which recently included reducing the services that are provided, we will not have learned anything from the lessons of the state, which led to the passage of AB 109 in the first place.

My energy comes from my determination for LARRP to help this state and county take advantage of the opportunity to do things differently and to learn from other jurisdictions by implementing proven approaches and programs.

Peter Laarman: What do you think accounts for what policy advocates in other parts of state sometimes refer to as the “LA problem”: the fact that our leadership in LA County is always so slow to pursue smart justice alternatives to incarceration?

Peggy Edwards: In some ways I understand it. When I was a strategic planning consultant, I did a lot of work in social service settings in the State of Rhode Island. We could test and pilot a number of approaches because the size of the state and population allowed for nimbleness.

Los Angeles County is not nimble. It takes a lot to get the political and social will corralled to make change happen. But that doesn’t excuse the leadership for actively working against implementation of proven approaches.

We know, for example, that Los Angeles County is 500,000 units short of meeting the need for affordable housing, we know it is difficult for recently released people to find housing, we know that the County of Los Angeles adds the barrier of restricting housing rental assistance to people on probation or parole, and we know that stable housing is one of the most important factors in keeping people from committing new crimes. Yet, we continue to add to our homeless count through our own policies.

If you need another example, formerly incarcerated people coming out of prison under AB 109 now receive only 52 days of employment assistance from the point of referral, a significant reduction from prior fiscal years. Knowing that employment, along with housing, are critical factors in keeping people from reoffending, why would we reduce the assistance instead of doing all we can do to expand it and increase our effectiveness in helping people find jobs?

If you think about building an effective system, this just doesn’t make sense to me at all.

Peter Laarman: You have worked for years in the fight against homelessness, and you see at close range the relation between re-entry success and housing access. Give us two or three things that could help create a better interface among agencies dealing with re-entry support and other agencies that have primary responsibility for fighting homelessness?

My biggest hope is that the new Board of Supervisors will recognize that we’ve used a billion dollars of state funding to build a huge infrastructure in law enforcement and that it is now time to focus more resources on rehabilitation and services.

Peggy Edwards: First of all, there has to be an understanding that there is tremendous overlap between people that are homeless and people that have been previously incarcerated. In our chronically homeless population, the overlap is even stronger. Reentry service providers don’t really see themselves as homeless services providers, yet their services are keeping people from the streets. And homeless services providers don’t see themselves as reentry service providers, yet a large percentage of their clients/residents are formerly incarcerated.

In many ways in Los Angeles County, the reentry service providers, both public agencies and community/faith-based organizations, are at a place exactly where the homeless services providers were eight or more years ago. The reentry services are based on fragmented approaches, transitional housing, and abstinence-only programs with a one-size fits all mentality. The lessons learned since then by the homeless providers community have been significant, but are lost on the reentry providers.

With reentry, we’re working with a very similar population but the decisions are being made by law enforcement, not social services agencies. Homeless service providers have learned that by housing people first and making services available when clients are ready, people can live successfully and recover and thrive. We have hundreds of examples and success stories in our communities. Law enforcement is still incarcerating although evidence shows that alternatives to incarceration such as diverting people experiencing mental illness to community treatment are far more successful.

Peter Laarman: We’re about to get a new county board, with the election of new supervisors from districts 1 and 3. What should the new Board of Supervisors be taking on as top priorities in relation to criminal justice?

Peggy Edwards: Not only will the new Board of Supervisors be composed of three members that have indicated they understand the importance of rehabilitation to improving public safety, there will also be a new Sheriff who seems to have a similar bent. Add to this mixture, a new CEO and a new head of County Council and a new Executive Director at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, and there is a huge possibility of a sea change at the county level.

My biggest hope is that the new Board of Supervisors will recognize that we’ve used a billion dollars of state funding to build a huge infrastructure in law enforcement and that it is now time to focus more resources on rehabilitation and services. I hope that they will reverse the thinking that incarceration is the only way to increase public safety and look to increase funding for support services, mental health and substance abuse treatment, housing, and employment services. I’d propose 50% be spent on incarceration and supervision and 50% on services. Let’s start the discussion there with the new county leadership.

Peter Laarman
Justice Not Jails

About Peter Laarman

Rev. Peter Laarman serves on the Justice Not Jails steering committee. He formerly directed Progressive Christians Uniting, the LA-based network of activist individuals and congregations that first launched Justice Not Jails in 2012 as a multifaith initiative. He served as the senior minister of New York’s Judson Memorial Church from 1994 to 2004. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, Peter spent 15 years as a labor movement strategist and communications specialist prior to training for ministry.