Do ex-cons ever really finish serving their debt to society?
Photo by Rich Pedroncelli
Over the past two months there have been some exciting movements in the right direction regarding prison reform. But in America, overcoming the stigma of prison remains a real issue.
The United States has had a long-held history of Judeo-Christian beliefs that has helped guide our Country’s moral compass. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” has always been our mantra. But conversely to that mantra, in many ways former offenders have been left out. Perhaps its our Puritan foundation on criminal justice systems that has set the standard for our penology strategies that has always sided on toughness, discipline, and punishment. In fact, both the Pennsylvania and later the Auburn Correctional Systems have their foundation in a more puritanistic form of penology.
But for our Country to go to the next level in corrections we have to address the stigma associated with prison and those that are former offenders. President Donald Trump recently stated that prison reform should not only allow for the “dignity of a hard day’s work,” but also in helping to set up former offenders with the opportunity to succeed once out of prison.
We need not only the change that comes with prison reform but a change in fundamental correctional beliefs. The stigma of prison remains after an offender serves their debt to society and needs to be seen as a debt fulfilled. Presently, we are like a lender that demands payment even after the debt is paid in full. That must change and change quickly if we are to embrace real reform.
We need more opportunities for inmates to rebuild their lives. States like Kansas and Texas have reduced recidivism rates with the help of mentorship programs, mental health treatment, and faith-based initiatives. This is the reason we should embrace the FIRST STEP Act that will focus on treatment and preparation for re-entry. But we also need to have continued focus on changing the stigma associated with serving time in prison. One way to achieve that goal is to help employers and business owners see that hiring former offenders as an opportunity to bring much-needed skilled labor to job sites. Right on Crime recently released a handbook for employers that outlines this opportunity.
We currently have great economic prosperity, and unemployment is at all-time lows across all demographics. While excellent news, we will need a labor force in order to fuel the American economic engine, and low unemployment numbers can make that force hard to find. Business leaders in concert with elected officials have a real opportunity to step up to the plate and offer real hope to former offenders through meaningful employment while also capitalizing on an untapped labor force eager to enter the market.
We have the President, a bipartisan group of governors, and religious leaders all pushing for prison reform. This is rare combination that gives great promise for success. One more block to that reformation foundation lies in the opportunity to succeed upon re-entry, and employers are the mortar for that foundation!