The City of Oakland California is reeling from the shooting over the weekend of four police officers, all of whom have died, at the hands of a parolee. Police killed the assailant; the incident occurring in one of the city’s most crime ridden neighborhoods. It is the latest setback for a city that has seen its share of troubles recently, including the shooting of an unarmed Black man by a transit officer in full public view and captured on videotape. That shooting sparked a series of public demonstrations as the Black community expressed outrage over the incident.
The incident is a tragedy in all aspects. The large turnout by the community at a prayer vigil last night demonstrates the depths of the city’s despair over the murders of the police officers and the soul searching that is underway in Oakland. While the public is understandably grieving over the deaths of the officers, the assailant, Lovelle Mixon, has now achieved a degree of infamy that places his name among that city’s most despised criminals in its history. It is not surprising given the senseless murder of police officers in a city that has had more than its share of criminal activity. The 26-year-old parolee is now the poster child for proponents of harsher sentencing and criteria that are more stringent to gain parole.
Still, there is reason to empathize with the plight of Lovelle Mixon. According to family members, Mixon was frustrated with his inability to get work and vowed not to return to prison. His relatives believe his despair may have driven him to violence as a last resort to avoid a parole violation and imprisonment. While it is difficult to muster much sympathy for Mixon, his situation is worth examining for it is the reality for many formerly incarcerated individuals who return to communities with little hope of becoming gainfully employed. For the Black community it is a particularly important issue given the disproportionate imprisonment of Blacks, and Black men specifically.
For some time the issue of “prisoner” or “felon” re-entry has been gaining visibility in public policy discussions. The result of the mass imprisonment of Blacks in the “get tough on crime” era of the 1980’s has created a whole class of individuals who are permanently severed from the labor market. As states cut back on prison education programs and provided few transitional services, recidivism exploded as the formerly incarcerated had few skills that would make them employable. In communities across the country, individuals return from correctional institutions unprepared to make the transition back into society and ultimately vulnerable to the same vices that were responsible for their imprisonment. They are susceptible to violating the conditions of their parole and at the extreme; they might be prone to act out, as might be the case with Mixon.
States are beginning to focus on issues around reentry as fiscal pressures force them to reconsider the costs of mass imprisonment. It is simply becoming too expensive to incarcerate large numbers of individuals, particularly for non-violent offenses that resulted in limited cost to society. The problem is that states have few options for these individuals upon their release from prison. Few pre-release programs exist to prepare individuals for their transition back into communities. Once they return home, and the available data suggests that overwhelmingly they return to their communities of residence, the formerly incarcerated face a mountain of obstacles. For parolees with families the challenge of re-connection and becoming a wage earner are intertwined. Many formerly incarcerated individuals, while welcomed home, are confronted with the expectations by spouses or significant others that they contribute to the maintenance of the household. It is a tall order since few people leave prison with relevant work skills.
We are hopeful that the tragedy in Oakland will bring increased attention to conditions facing the formerly incarcerated. We do not make excuses for the actions of Lovelle Mixon but we do recognize that his situation is not an isolated one. Every state needs to re-examine their parole systems and determine how they might be changed to provide parolees with a real second chance.