Our Office of Returning Citizens

Kimberly M. Rhoten (they/them) is a 2021 Summer Fellow with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, working with the Office of Returning Citizens to explore how Boston might reimagine and restructure this Office so as to expand services to this vulnerable population.

I’d like to introduce you to a City Office you might not know we had: The Office of Returning Citizens. Each year, over 3,000 people return to the City of Boston from prison or jail. Most return without a safe place to live, a change of clothes, or easy access to food. With a criminal background, locating housing and employment prove to be insurmountable for many returning citizens within their first six to twelve months post release. The City of Boston’s Office of Returning Citizens acts as a crucial resource for this vulnerable population, offering case management services and support as well as referrals to Boston’s resource rich non-profit landscape. Despite this Office’s small staff size of two (formerly three), each year the ORC sees 1 in 10 of all returning citizens coming home to Boston. Since their creation in 2017 by previous Mayor Marty Walsh, the Office’s caseload has risen by over 700%! Wowza!

In Your Shoes: Arlis Evans, City of Boston

ORC’s work to help returning citizens find stability after incarceration contributes to racial justice.

By working to keep returning citizens home and out of re-incarceration, the ORC furthers our City’s commitment to racial equity. There are well-documented racial inequalities that exist in the U.S. criminal justice system, as people of color (particularly Black men) are disproportionately more likely to experience police interactions, face arrest, and to receive higher sentences. In Massachusetts, Black residents constitute only 7% of state residents, but 18% of people in jail and 27% of those in prison. The majority of ORC clients are Black men, reflecting the racial inequities of the carceral system. The City of Boston declared that racism is a public health crisis and has committed to eliminating all the ways that racism and inequality harm our residents. The work of the ORC is a crucial part of the City’s work to address the inequitable harms of incarceration and its impact on communities of color.

The work of the Office of Returning Citizens contributes directly to homelesness prevention.

Many returning citizens face homelessness, food instability, and joblessness for months (if not years) after their release from prisons or jails. Research shows that returning citizens who lack stable housing following incarceration face a higher likelihood of recidivism, rearrest, and reincarceration. As such, they are caught up in an expensive and dangerous revolving door between homelessness and prison. Currently, the ORC is one of Boston’s primary service providers that aims to put a stop to this deleterious cycle. The ORC helps place clients in temporary housing, including sober living housing and single room occupancy placements. Further, the Office works diligently to create employment opportunities for their clients, through resume and cover letter building as well as referrals to job training programs. With steady employment, returning citizens are easily able to access stable housing opportunities, keeping them away from the dangers of homelessness. The work of the ORC is a crucial component of the City’s commitment to prevent homelessness of its residents.

We can all help the work of the Office of Returning Citizens and support the successful return of our friends, family, and neighbors from incarceration.

I’ve spent the last eight weeks working closely with the dedicated staff at the Office of Returning Citizens and it has opened my eyes to the challenges that returning citizens face coming home to Boston. This experience has inspired me to stay firmly involved in our City’s efforts to keep returning citizens home for good. Now that you’ve read about our City’s Office of Returning Citizens and the difficulties their clients face, how might you support returning citizens in your community? There are a number of ways you can contribute, both big and small. If you are an employer, consider employing folks with a criminal background. You could be their first BIG step towards financial stability! If you work in higher education or skills training, consider enrolling returning citizens. A certification or degree could make the difference between getting an interview or being passed up for a job opportunity. And lastly, if you are a Greater Boston Area resident, please be kind to our returning citizens and their families. Those who leave incarceration (across the Commonwealth but also here in Boston based facilities) face exceptional stigma and barriers to social acceptance upon release. We are all neighbors, friends, employers, or family to our City’s returning citizens. We are where the stigma of incarceration starts, and importantly, where it can end.

Kimberly (they/them) is an attorney, academic, and advocate. As a PhD student at Boston University, their research interests include the legal treatment of non-traditional families and non-monogamous sexualities as well as the structural inequities of mass incarceration. Before starting their PhD, Kimberly worked on a wide variety of social justice and public service projects including housing insecurity, digital privacy, and food access. When they are not in the office, chances are you’ll find Kimberly on a deep-sea fishing boat in Gloucester or exploring the haunted happenings of Salem.

About the Fellowship:
The New Urban Mechanics Summer Fellowship is designed for entrepreneurial students and professionals interested in working in public service. During this highly selective eight-week program, summer fellows work as a team and on their own projects, generating and implementing creative and thoughtful new prototypes to benefit the City of Boston.

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The Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics is Boston's Civic R&D Lab / Incubator.

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New Urban Mechanics

New Urban Mechanics

The Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics is Boston's Civic R&D Lab / Incubator.

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