Recently, more and more Americans, from the President to members of Congress and state lawmakers, have been weighing in on the matter of reforming our criminal justice system, a system of over-incarceration which has resulted in the senseless long-term incarceration of low level drug offenders. Fortunately, North Carolina is among the states that has come to the enlightened realization that “tougher sentences don’t make us safer.”
As a nation, we are starting to wise up about our addiction to mass incarceration as being a terrible waste of lives and money, especially concerning our nonviolent offenders who become “out of sight, out of mind” in prison.
While I applaud the bipartisan effort to reform and overhaul our federal and state prison sentencing laws, let me remind you that we have a responsibility to the over 600,000 Americans released from prison each year. Yes, the vast majority, over 90 percent,of incarcerated individuals in North Carolina will eventually leave prison and come back home. And the fact that about 60 percent of ex-offenders will re-offend and return to prison for new crimes is a shameful indictment on us as an elightened society.
Just maybe, it’s time for an epic shift in how we view ex-offenders, transitioning back into society, creating a better balance where punishment and forgiveness meet. We must be willing to forgive and let go. Also, it is shameful that we make it so difficult for ex-offenders to reintegrate into mainstream society. Let’s give them a chance, empowering them to make better choices as every American deserves a second chance. So, let’s task ourselves with helping more people succeed in staying out of prison, considering our efforts as an investment for the general well-being of the whole society. Helping ex-offenders is in our own self-interest, allowing us to avoid the cost of recidivism, ex-offenders returning to prison.
If we truly believe everyone deserves a second chance, we should be helping to bridge the gap for people coming out of prison by offering services to assist with employment, housing and education. Further, we need to remove barriers to productive citizenship. There is nothing more important than landing a job after coming out of prison, making it imperative for employers and companies to intervene and open up opportunities for people with past convictions.
It is no exaggeration to say that finding that job after being released from prison is a defining moment in the lives of ex-offenders, for many know the value of employment, which has been shown to be the chief factor in reducing recidivism. Now, it’s time we allow ex-offenders the opportunity to display and demonstrate their qualifications in the hiring process before being asked about their past criminal convictions; at least to some degree, remembering that one size does not fit all.
Something seems terribly amiss when we choose to deny employment to ex-offenders, knowing that can help make them contributing citizens, thus uplifting the whole society. If we are to continue becoming a more just society, we must believe and demonstrate that everyone deserves a fair chance, and we need to provide assistance for those who are actively seeking ways to improve their lives.
Shouldn’t it be all about saving some lives? I believe so.
Larry Sutton is a former teacher at Clinton High School.