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From the Criminal Justice System to the Department of Justice

TalkPoverty.org

By Daryl V. Atkinson, Second Chance Fellow with the Bureau of Justice Assistance at the U.S. Department of Justice

For the first time in its history, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has designated this week National Reentry Week, observed this year between April 24th and 30th. As part of this designation, Attorney General Loretta Lynch asked United States attorneys, wardens at the Bureau of Prisons, and members of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council (Reentry Council) to organize reentry-related events across the country. The response has been tremendous with over 200 events planned by our federal partners, ranging from job fairs for the formerly incarcerated to events at federal prisons for children of incarcerated parents. As the inaugural Second Chance Fellow in DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, I have the opportunity of using this week to reflect on my own reentry experience.

Sixteen years ago, I left prison like many of the 600,000 people released from federal and state institutions each year: full of excitement and trepidation. On the day of my release, my mother and step-father rented a vehicle, a Lincoln town car, to pick me up. At the time, I did not give much thought to the gesture because I was solely concerned with leaving that place as quickly as possible. A few years later, I asked my step-father why they went through the trouble of renting a luxury vehicle, something more suited for a trip to the senior prom, to pick me up from a maximum security prison. His response was that they wanted to make some sort of grand gesture to truly welcome me home.

Over the years, they continued to offer support in both tangible and intangible ways, including providing food, clothing and shelter; helping to fund my college education; and never solely defining me by my past mistakes. Their collective efforts illustrate what I think of as a “Second Chance culture”—a deep, sustained investment in my future success, more profound than any single reentry program or policy. Now, I am hardly suggesting that federal and state governments rent luxury vehicles for the 10 to 12 million people released from prisons and jails each year. But I am encouraging the government and the private sector to adopt policies and practices that embrace a Second Chance culture—one that envisions a prolonged commitment to the successful reintegration of people impacted by incarceration.

The Obama Administration and DOJ—through the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) and the Reentry Council—have taken great strides toward creating a Second Chance culture. Since the passage of the Second Chance Act in 2007, OJP has made over 700 grants, totaling over 400 million dollars, to local reentry programs. These community-based programs meet many of the basic life needs of people with criminal records by providing housing assistance, job training, and substance abuse treatment.

President Obama directed the Office of Personnel Management to “ban the box” for federal employment, which delays questions about criminal history until later in the employment process so applicants with criminal records have a fair chance at competing for jobs.

And members of the Reentry Council from more than 20 federal agencies have adopted policies that remove barriers and create opportunities for successful reintegration. For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development issued policy guidance to housing providers on how to evaluate people with criminal records when they seek to rent or buy houses or apartments. Moreover, the Department of Education started a pilot program to give currently incarcerated people access to post-secondary education.

Importantly, Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason, who oversees OJP, is issuing policy guidance to 15 offices within OJP encouraging them, when appropriate, to avoid using terms like “ex-offender” and “ex-felon,” in an effort to diminish the stigmatization of people who have been justice-involved. And most notably for me personally, DOJ created the Second Chance Fellow position, specifically for a formerly incarcerated criminal justice expert, to help advise the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), the Reentry Council, and the entire Department on effective reentry policy and practice.  These combined efforts are the foundation of a Second Chance culture at the federal level because they signal a long-term, sustained commitment to improving the lives of millions of people with criminal records.

During my fellowship, I will contribute to the Department’s burgeoning Second Chance culture by advising the Second Chance portfolio of BJA, consulting with the Reentry Council on effective reentry policies, and serving as a conduit to the broader justice-involved population to ensure that DOJ is hearing from all stakeholders. The latter charge—garnering the perspectives of formerly incarcerated people to inform effective reentry policy—is critically important, as well as essentially uncharted territory for DOJ and most criminal justice agencies. I will compile the perspectives of formerly incarcerated people through a series of qualitative interviews with highly successful formerly incarcerated leaders. The goal will be to learn what about reentry works from people who have actually done it and are now making tremendous contributions to their communities.

Another benefit of the interviews is that they will be digitally recorded and compiled into an online story bank accessible the public. The purpose of the story bank is to challenge the pervasive negative stereotypes of people with criminal records, with the aim of humanizing the justice-involved population and thereby creating more public momentum for the adoption of effective reentry policy.

If America does not embrace a Second Chance culture, we miss the opportunity to reduce victimization, save precious public safety resources, and, most importantly, capitalize on the potential of people who have paid their debt to society and now want to contribute to their communities. Missed opportunities risk negatively impacting the economic vitality of the country as we undergo important demographic shifts. Over the next few decades, the Baby Boomer generation will age out of the workforce, while the majority of our nation’s population will become people of color. If African-Americans and Latinos, who comprise roughly 60 percent of the prison population, are denied the ability to get a job or an education to build their human capital, then there will be fewer qualified people to replace a dwindling workforce. A less qualified workforce means lower economic activity and production, which hurts the entire country.

National Reentry Week is an opportunity to acknowledge that no person is defined by their contact with the criminal justice system—and everyone deserves a second chance. Let us also use this week as a chance to embrace a larger cultural shift wherein we seek to invest in the long-term success of those who have been involved in the criminal justice system. The very health of our country depends on it.