An Oakland organization is helping soon to be released and newly released prisoners negotiate a multitude of legal problems.
Root and Rebound is leading the way in reentry legal advocacy for incarcerated people to help them overcome the various hurdles to successful reintegration into society.
Root and Rebound estimates people released from prisons and jails in California face “approximately 48,000 documented federal, state, and local barriers to successful reintegration.” These barriers can restrict their ability to address critical needs like securing employment, housing, social services, financial stability and family reunification.
Unlike almost all reentry organizations, Root and Rebound does not directly provide reentry services but rather provides information, referrals, and legal assistance. The founding
attorneys at Root and Rebound quickly discovered the demand for legal assistance to help overcome such barriers outpaced their ability to meet with people one-on-one.
In response, they created the “Roadmap to Reentry: A California Legal Guide” as well as a “Reentry Legal Hotline” and “county-based, template letters” to help incarcerated and justice-impacted people and their families be successful in the reentry process. These unique resources are available free to people throughout the state. The Hotline is also available to report discrimination against the formerly incarcerated.
“We realized we would be more effective if we could work to democratize legal information so that it’s accessible to everyone,” said Laura Merchant, an attorney at Root and Rebound, on their blog. Merchant noted the lack of timely access to accurate information often impedes people from properly preparing for their release.
“People are shocked when we explain that you can’t access the internet when you’re in prison,” she said. “You can’t just Google something. If you want to know the address of a Social Security office, so you can write to them for forms in the county you’ll be paroling to, you can submit a request to your correctional counselor, but you might wait six months to get a reply.”
Merchant originally worked as a patent lawyer but switched to working for Root and Rebound because she saw how the treatment of people in the criminal legal system was negatively impacting their lives and their communities.
“I feel like as a lawyer I could actually use my skills to chip away at that,” Merchant said. “It’s nice to work on an issue that is ripe for change and reform, where there’s a big need. It’s overwhelming at times, given how much needs to change, but it’s also really rewarding.”
To help accelerate this change, Root and Rebound also works extensively to advocate for system-wide policy reforms through legislation and litigation campaigns. Policy areas they are currently working on read like a wish list for incarcerated people and their families.
For example, Root and Rebound helps to educate employers — or sue them if needed — regarding California’s Fair Chance Act, which is the “ban-the-box” law that restricts employers from asking about criminal history. They are also promoting a campaign to “Ban the Box in Higher Education” as well as a “Fair Chance Housing” campaign to help ensure that formerly incarcerated people have equal access to education and housing.
Other efforts include reducing the suffering caused by debt due to court-ordered fines and fees, ending blanket denials of occupational licenses for people with criminal records, shortening parole and probation length, reducing flash incarcerations for minor violations, increasing reentry funding and resources, and working to reduce the separation of families affected by the legal system.
Root and Rebound also strives to empower communities impacted by the legal system by holding mobile legal clinics and educational workshops, and their online training hub helps people to understand their legal rights and the options and support available to protect them.
“The concept of reentry, the transition from incarceration back into a community… it wasn’t something that people talked about,” Merchant said. “We really want to be here to help people get the information they need to be able to hit the ground running when they get released.”
For a free copy of the comprehensive, 1,100-page Roadmap to Reentry: A California Legal Guide, send a request to Root and Rebound at 1730 Franklin Street, Suite 300, Oakland, CA 94612. To reach their Reentry Legal Hotline, call 510-279-4662 on Fridays between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Hotline accepts collect calls and calls from family members