Spotlight Exclusives

Extending Real Second Chances to Returning Citizens

Quintin Williams, Heartland Alliance Quintin Williams, Heartland Alliance, posted on

President Trump declared April “Second Chance Month” and in doing so stressed the importance of providing “opportunities for people with criminal records to earn an honest second chance.” While having a month dedicated to “second chances” and reentry awareness is an important step, we should also note the limited depth of the President’s proclamation. Trump is right when he says that recidivism rates are too high, and, yes, we need more money to fund reentry organizations in communities. However, there is much more that needs to be done in this country to ensure equity and opportunity for people with records.

True opportunity for “second chances” can’t happen unless we dismantle the myriad collateral consequences. Collateral consequences are federal, state, and local laws restricting rights and opportunities for people with a criminal record. There are currently over 48,000 collateral consequences that keep individuals – and, by extension, their communities – in bondage well beyond their sentence.

In his declaration, Trump mentioned that a key to successful reentry is employment. However, without dismantling the collateral consequences that make it tough, if not impossible, for returning citizens to access work, “second chance” efforts are in vain. It’s time to restore access to housing, ensure voting rights, expand access to basic assistance programs, eliminate licensing restrictions, address persistent employer discrimination, and get rid of the prolific fines and fees that extract wealth from individuals returning from incarceration. Simply mentioning the importance of employment without noting the intersecting barriers that make it difficult for people with criminal records to access employment is not enough.

What’s more, there is plenty of research that suggests that even when returning citizens are able to obtain employment in the private sector, their work is often low paying, without benefits, and in some cases outright exploitative. There isn’t just a need for jobs, but for quality jobs that pay a living wage. These jobs also need to be coupled with jobs programs for unskilled returning citizens that pay wages and offer participants professional developmental experiences. Programs like this have been shown to reduce recidivism (e.g. transitional employment programs) and provide critical wrap around services that go a long way in addressing the additional barriers besides employment.

We must include the voices of those most impacted when we work to dismantle barriers to economic opportunity. Any conversation about “second chances” must include the voices of the impacted. We cannot have a top down conversation about what needs to be done to reduce recidivism and open doors to economic opportunity for people with criminal records and expect it to be effective. In the advocacy community, many of us believe that “those closest to the problem are closest to the solution”—but we also know that impacted populations are often the furthest away from the resources and support that will lift up their voices and create space for them to lead in these important conversations.

Organizations like JustLeadershipUSA and Heartland Alliance have prioritized the voices of those most impacted with great success. My research in Chicago shows the need to listen to impacted people in order to ensure reentry programming and policies are meeting their needs. For example, Moon, a 40-year-old African-American woman, reflected on the stress and frustration of gauging which service providers and programs would genuinely assist people and criticized job readiness programs that did not connect people to actual employment:

When the class over, they come hand you a certificate that you can’t do nothin’ with. But they get a paycheck because you was there, you see…I don’t want to be a part of that…If I go somewhere, I want a job.

Moon needed help with meeting her immediate need for earned income and connections to work, highlighting the importance of rapid attachment to employment in reentry programs. Funding these types of evidence-based practices would go a long way toward addressing employment needs and interests for Moon and others like her across the country.

Language matters when we talk about second chances. The truth is that human beings may need more than two chances to get a handle on the complexities of life. This is especially true for returning citizens who find themselves caught in the cycle of poverty, violence, and trauma. Therefore, the narrative about reentry should be recast to include broader and more inclusive discussions about who we want to succeed and participate fully in our society. We must resist the temptation to decide who among the formerly incarcerated is deserving of full citizenry. Returning citizens are human and must not be cast out or barred from our society after just two chances. Redemption is only real when it has no limits. Our language must reflect this, even if it’s with the best intentions that we say second chances. We need to be prepared to give as many chances as it takes to aid and assist in the flourishing of ALL people who have been entangled in the prison industrial complex.

It’s time for advocates and policymakers to go deeper on reforming reentry. Blanket statements such as “people with records need jobs” are true, but in order to provide true economic opportunity, we need to dismantle collateral consequences, include those with lived experience in our shaping of programs and policies, and broaden our language around redemption and restoration. We must change the narrative about people who have committed or been accused of crimes. We cannot be punitive and restorative. We have to make a choice. Thousands of lives depend on it. As long as the reentry and redemption of returning citizens continues to be characterized by failed policies and scarce resources, we will never give people the chances that we say we want to provide.

Quintin Williams is a Field Building Project Manager for National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity at Heartland Alliance.

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