The Common Good
July 2013

Five Questions for Susan Burton

by Dawn Cherie Araujo | July 2013

Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project

Susan Burton, photo by Kathleen Toner

Bio: Founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project in California, which has provided housing and support for more than 500 formerly incarcerated women.

1. What motivated you to start A New Way of Life in 1998?
Through the kindness of a special person, I was able to access treatment services in Santa Monica [Calif.] after the sixth and final time I was released from prison. This was a new phenomenon for me. I am originally from South Los Angeles, and I was amazed that such resources were available in this more-affluent part of the city. I began to wonder why those same resources were not available in my home community—an area so heavily impacted by the “war on drugs.” I knew the need was desperate, and I wanted to bring those resources to South L.A. My work since then has been, and continues to be, a work of faith. I step out in faith, and God shows up.

2. In what way is the current criminal justice system bad for women and families?
I can’t think of a way that it’s good for anyone. The current system treats everyone inhumanely. It puts them into the category of slaves. It exploits their families. It kills their hopes and dreams. Our mission is to address the needs of people who have been negatively and cruelly treated by the criminal justice system and to restore their hopes and dreams by treating them with dignity and respect.

3. Many women enter into incarceration through a trauma-to-substance abuse chain. For example, you began using drugs after your son was killed. What can be done to prevent that first use of drugs?
We need to ensure that counseling and therapy are provided to all who need it. Also, we need to build a society that is less about retribution and more about rehabilitation. We need a society that understands that we all make mistakes. If mistakes are made, people should be held to a level of accountability, and they should make amends for those mistakes. However, that doesn’t mean that they must be punished for those mistakes for the rest of their lives.

4. Your organization supports expunging criminal records. Why is that important?
I don’t believe that expungements are a “be-all and end- all.” They provide only a partial remedy to successful community re-entries. An expungement can help some individuals not have to “check the box” on various applications, such as those for employment, housing, insurance, etc.

For example, “Ms. R” was a resident in one of our re-entry homes for almost two years. She was in her 60s, enrolled in school, and living a sober and productive lifestyle. But because of her criminal record, her rental applications for housing were consistently denied. Through A New Way of Life’s advocacy on her behalf, she was finally able to access permanent housing in 2012.

5. What is your favorite success story?
Every time I pick up a woman from prison or jail, I’m filled with so much hope. I’m seeing them successfully discharged from parole. I’m seeing them get their children back. And I’m seeing women get their lives back on track.

—Interview by Dawn Araujo

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