SPA Alumni/Faculty Help Students Help DC Offenders
SPA helped launch their careers in community corrections, and now, Greg Hunt and Aaron Lucas are returning the favor.
Together, Hunt, who earned his master’s in justice from AU in 1975, and Lucas, who graduated with a bachelor’s in the administration of criminal justice that same year, have decades of experience in probation, counseling, and treatment. Following their respective retirements, the two developed the Agencies in Cooperation for Effective Services (ACES) program, which trains AU students to help ex-offenders successfully transition back into their communities throughout the Washington area.
ACES’ aim is simple, says Lucas. “We developed this program for students who believe that change is possible in the criminal justice system, for students who want to move away from the ‘lock ’em up and throw away the key’ philosophy.
“We hear about recidivism and the revolving door, but people can change—I’ve seen it first-hand—and we want our students to be a part of that process,” Lucas continues.
According to the Washington-based Urban Institute, 95 percent of offenders are eventually released, which means people are cycling into and out of prisons at historic numbers. More than 630,000 people are released from prisons each year, a fourfold increase over the past 20 years. And as the majority of offenders are drawn from a relatively small number of disadvantaged, urban communities, issues surrounding reentry are particularly salient in areas like D.C.
“Supervision without services doesn’t work,” says Lucas. Because ex-offenders often struggle with addiction, unemployment, homelessness, and social instability, “they need an array of services related to housing, employment, education, mental health, and drug treatment.
“There’s no question that some people simply belong in jail, but many others can benefit from services and are ready and willing to better themselves, given the opportunity,” Lucas continues. “And when that happens, everyone in the community benefits.”
Offenders in Society, which is offered every semester within SPA’s Department of Justice, Law and Society as part of the ACES program, gives undergraduate and graduate students a glimpse at the inner workings of the criminal justice system, and helps them identify those opportunities for change. In the classroom, students learn how to interview, assess, and counsel a variety of defendants and ex-offenders, including those suffering from a mental illness or substance abuse issues. Students then apply those skills at a local correctional agency or community treatment program, where they’re required to work at least 15 hours a week for 14 weeks.
“It’s rigorous,” says Lucas, “but it can also be incredibly rewarding.”
“We’ve had some students who enjoy their placement so much, they go above and beyond the requirement, and work there on the weekends,” he continues. “They feel good about the kind of work they’re doing.”
Students, who are placed at halfway houses, juvenile institutions, state and federal probation offices, and drug treatment centers, work one-on-one with clients, helping them build résumés and navigate a maze of social services. In some cases, students even manage their own case files, and lead group counseling and education sessions.
“They’re not doing photocopying in these internships,” says Lucas. “The students are actually getting their hands dirty.”
In addition to chronicling their experiences in a journal, the students are also required to identify a problem at their agency, and, in the words of Hunt, “find a way to fix it.”
“We had one student who decorated the interview room at one agency to make it more comfortable for clients, and another student who set up an Internet job bank for clients,” Hunt says. “They’re little things, but they can make a big difference.”
A few of the agencies have been so impressed with the students’ initiative and commitment that they offered them full-time employment upon graduation. Several of Lucas and Hunt’s former students now work as probation officers at the District of Columbia Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, while others have been hired by the federal public defenders office in D.C.
Hunt says it’s gratifying to know his students leave AU well prepared for a career in community corrections.
“Before I retired, I worked with a number of student interns, and so many times they would come to me completely unprepared for the field. I had to spend so much time just catching them up . . .” he says. “It’s good to know our students arrive, on day one, ready to work.”
And while effective interviewing and counseling skills are critical, Hunt hopes his students leave the School of Public Affairs with something even more essential. Just as he and Lucas did 30 years ago, Hunt hopes his students leave with a desire to make their communities a better, safer place.
“Although we hope students get something out of the class, it’s just as much about AU giving something back to the community,” says Hunt. “With thousands of offenders returning to society every year, we are providing a service in an area with a great need. And I’m just proud AU students can be a part of that.”