America is in the midst of a crisis of disenfranchisement and incarceration. We have more citizens in prison than any other civilized nation, and men and women of color are incarcerated at a drastically higher rate than other Americans. Low-income communities struggle with the combination of working for slow-growing wages and a social safety net that is under attack, making it harder than ever to get on your feet. We are living through a time when it is more and more urgent that we find a new way to strengthen those communities worst hit by poverty and incarceration, creating a safer and more prosperous future.

Nearly one-fifth of American families live in poverty and another third of Americans face substantial economic stress as a result of low incomes. Every day, these families face the reinforcing cycle of poverty and incarceration. People who end up being incarcerated have incomes that are 40% lower than others, and nearly 70% of African-American men without a high school diploma will be incarcerated by their mid-thirties. Almost all people in prison will return to the community at some point, and roughly half are at risk of returning to prison within five years. Meanwhile, research indicates that former prisoners’ earnings are up to 40% lower after release, further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and incarceration.

Our prisons and jails are filled with people who have been there before and for whom we urgently need to break the cycle of release and reincarceration. We know that groups given the simplest forms of support upon return – help finding work, housing, and supportive services like substance abuse and mental health treatment – have a vastly higher chance of success. For example, a California study of one such group found a recidivism rate of 1.3%, as compared to around 30% for other inmates released during the same time period. The goal is simple: to help people returning from prison be successful and productive community members.

It isn’t just people behind bars who need help breaking the cycle. These interventions are equally vital for families trying to make it through the incarceration of a loved one or those simply struggling to get by. Often, these problems are deeply intertwined – the incarceration of a loved one can result in a loss of family income and high costs associated with trying to support the incarcerated person. In turn, this can make a sustainable living situation suddenly unsustainable, putting a family at risk of homelessness, child services interventions, or a host of other issues. The same interventions that keep people from returning to prison can help keep people out of trouble to begin with. For example, higher employment and lower homelessness rates are both associated with decreased crime and keeping kids in school also keeps them out of trouble. Helping low-income people reach stable housing, employment, and family situations is vital both to their lives and the communities around them.

This is why the type of interdisciplinary and often preventive intervention offered by Partners for Justice is so crucial. Partners for Justice is creating a new support system for low-income families by placing non-attorney Advocates within public defenders’ offices, where they can intervene on behalf of people prior to, during or after criminal justice involvement.  Advocates use interdisciplinary and creative one-on-one problem-solving, coupled with a strong network of outside counsel and community programs, to help clients tackle problems that may have seemed insurmountable or intimidating. With an early intervention, an Advocate can help a client keep her job in spite of a misdemeanor arrest, access medical services so that a client can continue supporting his family, or help a young person clear their record, giving them real job prospects. By stabilizing our clients before the problem escalates, we decrease the risk of incarceration – or victimization.  Many issues can be handled entirely by the Advocate, and may prevent the need for a lawyer down the line.  The bottom line is preserving success and preventing disaster.

All of this can be accomplished for a fraction of what it would cost to solve any of these problems if they are allowed to spiral out of control and require the services of a state-appointed (or desperately retained) lawyer. After all, it is lower cost to keep someone housed in their own apartment than to sustain them in the shelter system while new housing is found. It is more cost-effective to provide access to preventive health care benefits before medical conditions worsen and become harder to treat. Ensuring a client has the right immigration documents filed to prevent detention or removal is less expensive than paying for an immigration attorney to spend hours in court. By intervening early, we anticipate substantial savings for the communities we serve, as Advocates prevent the need for expensive late-stage interventions.

Moreover, it is our hope that by providing college graduates with a transformative public service experience as Advocates, we help create the next generation of great American leaders, change-makers, and innovators. Beyond the immediate needs of low-income communities, it is critical that we create a lasting commitment to tackle issues of poverty and incarceration. Studies indicate that participation in similar programs engenders long-term engagement in public service. We also know that some of the skills required to be a successful advocate – tenacity, creative problem-solving, communication – are those that make for an effective leader in any field. We expect that Advocates will carry forward the perspective, confidence, and abilities gained during their service to inform future work in law, public policy, social work, or any number of future career paths.

Partners for Justice is excited to offer communities a relatively low-cost means of creating outsize impact in the day-to-day lives of our clients and to build a cohort of leaders committed to addressing some of the most massive crises of our time. To achieve these goals, we believe that building a strong evidence base is critical. Beginning on our first day in each host city, we will gather data to track client outcomes, Advocate outcomes, and our overall impact. We expect to ultimately see what the existing research tells us to expect: lower incarceration rates, reduced homelessness rates, increased employment, and increased family income. Over time, we expect to contribute to an overall improvement in the health, economy, and safety of the communities we serve. After all, small problems are never really small. And targeted interventions – done right and placed well – can have the greatest impact of all.