Researcher, Reformer, Life-Changer
01-29-2018 05:01pm

Researcher, Reformer, Life-Changer

Carrie Pettus-Davis is leading an unprecedented study that will help ex-prisoners live productive lives

The young man towered over Carrie Pettus-Davis. He looked intimidating—even a little scary. Pettus-Davis, then a psychology student at the University of Kansas, was working with him as a part-time juvenile probation officer. One day, she drove him home, but when they started to go inside, he stopped, and asked if they could sit in the car instead.

“I said, ‘What’s going on inside?,’” recalls Pettus-Davis, now a social worker and a professor who’ll be joining Florida State University this summer. “His mom was a prostitute. She was working out of her home, so she had clients. The demeanor on his face was heartbreaking. Soul-crushing, really. He was so hurt.”

For Pettus-Davis, it was a lifechanging moment. She realized that she needed to work with adults in the criminal justice system—with men and women who were struggling after serving their sentences—because their behavior was dramatically affecting their kids.

Pettus-Davis has devoted most of her career to improving the lives of ex-prisoners, and her latest project is arguably the most significant. In 2018, she will lead a major research initiative, funded by a $1 million grant from the Charles Koch Foundation, to identify the most effective re-entry services for reducing recidivism. The eight-site, randomized controlled trial will involve more than 1,000 prisoners who are nearing release in urban and rural communities in Florida, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

The study will feature an approach called the Five Key Model for Reentry, which Pettus-Davis developed with other researchers and practitioners, as well as ex-prisoners. The five keys include developing healthy thinking patterns (such as emphasizing empathy, which reduces the likelihood that someone engages in criminal behavior), finding occupational balance (jobs that are a good fit for particular individuals), building positive coping strategies (such as dealing with stress and developing problem-solving skills, which can lower recidivism rates and drug and alcohol use), and helping individuals enjoy positive social activities and strong interpersonal relationships. Participants in the study will receive either the Five Key approach or existing services offered by the prison. Researchers will then track their outcomes for 15 months after they’re released.

“The same framework has been driving services for the past 20 years, and it clearly isn’t working,” says Pettus-Davis, who notes that 77 percent of people are re-arrested for new crime within five years of release from prison. So, what makes the five keys different? “They’re focused on what people can achieve,” she says. “And that reduces recidivism and has positive effects for families and communities.”

A Life Devoted to Others

Pettus-Davis has worked in prisons for nearly 20 years, but the first time she entered a maximum-security facility, she almost fainted.

“The oppressiveness of the culture was so overwhelming that I had a hard time breathing,” she says. “It was intimidating—but not so intimidating that I didn’t come back.”

Her experience with the legal system began as a child growing up near Fayetteville, Arkansas. Her parents were attorneys, and while they weren’t criminal lawyers, “there were not infrequent occasions when they were bailing clients out of jail,” she says. But Pettus-Davis’s passion for criminal justice reform was ignited at age 17, when her class watched a video on the 1973 Stanford Prison Experiment, where professor Phillip Zimbardo famously created a mock prison with student volunteers serving as inmates and guards. The two sides assumed their powerful and powerless roles almost immediately, and the experiment ended early due to the guards’ brutish actions and the prisoners’ emotional anguish.

“It showed me how much prison changes the way that human beings treat each other,” she says. “That study made me think, if this is happening all over the country, and people treat each other this poorly, this is a problem.”

After graduating from high school, she wanted to learn more about the criminal justice system. Her father had represented a client involved as a potential witness in the Whitewater scandal, and through that connection, Pettus-Davis met Webb Hubbell, the former associate attorney general in the Clinton administration who served a year and a half in jail. “I interviewed him about what it was like to be in prison,” she says. “He talked a lot about how humiliating it was, how it tore his family apart. When I realized that direct impact on families, I was pretty much hooked.”

Her perspective grew in college when she volunteered at a center for homeless individuals, many of whom were cycling in and out of jail. “I developed an appreciation for the range of individuals that end up incarcerated,” she says. Ultimately, she decided that to impact the criminal justice system, she needed to work within the system rather than outside it. This led to experiences working as an intern at the federal Leavenworth maximum-security prison and volunteering at a local jail.

“I never had any problems with inmates,” she says. “I’ve certainly been told things to try and intimidate me, but never anything threatening. In fact, most of my interactions have been positive.”

While studying in the graduate program at the University of Kansas, she collaborated with the Kansas Department of Corrections and developed the state’s first reentry program. Once she graduated, she worked for 10 years as a social worker, then earned her doctorate and became director of the Institute for Advancing Justice Research and Innovation at Washington University in St. Louis, before joining Florida State in the summer of 2017.

Her research has focused on ways to improve the success and well-being of individuals who leave prison, to help their families, and to collaborate with prisons on new programs. She’s also working with prosecutors: The goal is to research ways to divert people from the criminal justice system so that “we’re not using a criminal justice response when it’s not necessary. And when it is necessary, it’s a response that will help that person to not engage in criminal behavior again.”

Reforming Unfair Restrictions

Pettus-Davis is especially interested in collateral consequences policies, which prevent people from pursuing essential activities—from finding housing to voting to getting a job—because of a felony conviction.

“What I find particularly problematic are laws that don’t allow people with felony convictions to foster or adopt children, even if they are in their own family,” she says. “That really tears families apart.” Restrictions on driver’s licenses also cause problems. “Sometimes people won’t be able to have a driver’s license for decades because of a drug offense. Given that most of our country doesn’t have great public transportation, a driver’s license is critical for keeping appointments and engaging in children’s activities or not being geographically confined.”

For many people, acts that happened early in life can stifle future opportunities. “Let’s say that a teenager stole an expensive pair of sunglasses, which is a felony offense in many states because of the dollar amount,” says Pettus-Davis. “Ten years later, that person is still not allowed to be a nurse or work in education because they have a felony conviction. All because of something they did when they were 18. That happens everywhere, all the time. And it’s invisible, except for the people experiencing it.”

She is optimistic, however, that the subject will become less invisible due to increasing attention from lawmakers and the media.

“I think people who have experienced incarceration are becoming more outspoken,” she says. “Until recently, incarceration didn’t impact most people’s lives. It was a much smaller population. But now, because our system has become so punitive, I think the sheer volume of people who are impacted means that collateral consequences policies can’t be ignored.”

Pettus-Davis’s new research initiative takes aim at those policies. What makes the study unprecedented, she says, it is that it will simultaneously focus on policy reform and program reform. By removing barriers and improving rehabilitation efforts, the odds of success are higher. Another goal is to speed up the research process. Typically, it takes 17 years for research findings to be implemented in practice, she says. But she and her colleagues will observe and refine their research model while they’re conducting the research, rather than doing so after a long trial.

Pettus-Davis is optimistic that the research will lead to changes. Each of the four states in the study are adopting the Five Keys framework, and as she travels the country presenting the plan to communities, agencies, and nonprofits, the response is enthusiastic.

“They love the Five Key framework and they are eager to adopt it,” she says. “We are at the cutting edge of this work right now. The success stories give you joy, but its the tragic stories that stick in my brain. They make me want to work as hard as possible to reduce the tragedies that people experience.”

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