The public safety benefits of redemption
Opponents to re-entry reforms, particularly those reforms that would expand access to employment, invoke the argument that any redemption extended to an ex-offender is insensitive to victims. Many of these folks also believe the indelible stigma of a criminal history is an appropriate consequence to a criminal act. I heard these arguments presented at a committee hearing just this week.
For these folks, it doesn’t seem to matter that the offense was low level, nonviolent and committed over a decade ago. Essentially, if you stole a $500 television 15 years ago then justice is beholden to the television’s owner to ensure you wear the label of “thief” for all of eternity, regardless of if you’ve served your time or whether you have turned your life around. They want to functionally handicap all ex-offenders from becoming productive members of society because they are not done being mad at them.
Putting aside the callous nature of this view, the real flaw in the argument is its shortsightedness. Someone who looks at the bigger picture will recognize that 95 percent of incarcerated offenders will be released, and that coupled with Tennessee’s 43 percent recidivism rate, it makes sense to remove unnecessary barriers to employment, housing, and other basic needs to ensure a successful assimilation back into society. Depending on the offense, narrowly tailored restrictions that limit an ex-offender’s access to specific spaces certainly makes sense. However, we must be judicious in adopting these restrictions. A society that divests ex-offenders of the hope of ever fulfilling their debt cannot then scratch its head and wonder why so many end up back in the system.
This past week, I was encouraged to witness the old mindset take a back seat to a more thoughtful approach to re-entry reform. In a 10 to 1 vote, the House Criminal Justice Committee voted in favor of expanding access to expungement for certain nonviolent, Class D felonies, such as petty theft and forgery. The types of offenses that have become more prevalent amongst those suffering from opioid addiction. Make no mistake, the lawmakers who supported this reform had not forgotten about crime victims. To the contrary, they took responsible steps to mitigate against future re-offenses, thus future victimization, by removing certain barriers to successful redemption. The Tennessee General Assembly is also on the verge of passing a bill that would remove the carte blanche discretion that state licensing authorities have to deny an individual a license if they have a criminal history. If enacted, the aptly titled “Fresh Start Act,” would ensure that a former offender’s application can only be denied upon written showing by the licensing authority that an applicant’s past criminal acts are directly related to the occupation for which a license is sought before. In other words, a past drug felony, for which the applicant has satisfied the imposed sanction, should not be denied a license to be a barber by the state’s cosmetology board – especially since barbering is included as a part of the Department of Corrections’ vocational training.
Lawmakers who stand up for responsible second chance reforms send an encouraging message to folks that it’s possible to repay your debt and move forward with your life. Many Tennesseans will directly benefit from the second chance that these reforms will provide. However, there are also collateral benefits with a broader impact such as lower recidivism rates, fewer victims, and safer communities. . Simply put, we all gain from another’s redemption.