Americans believe in the idea that everyone should get a second chance—a chance to redeem ourselves and make things right. This is a guiding principle behind a “second-chance economy”—one that would offer opportunity for approximately 650,000 people released from prison every year in America, and for tens of millions of others who have been arrested or convicted of a crime.
I’m one of those Americans who committed a crime and have a criminal conviction. At one point, I was just like the two-thirds of people who are released from prison or jail only to commit a crime again, be rearrested and convicted.
I know some people may say that I deserve to live in poverty because of my mistakes. But they don’t know my story. They don’t know that I was born to an abusive father and a mother with severe mental illness; or that I was given narcotics as a young child by a relative who was supposed to care for me, but instead molested me and sold my pictures through a child-pornography ring. They don’t know that by the time I was 12, I was on the streets, on my way to a life of crime and addiction, and—with no adult to care for me or advocate for me—I was in and out of the juvenile justice system, never receiving the mental-health care I needed.
Truth is, I don’t care if people know these things about me or not, because I love myself now and that is what matters. But I do care that people have another chance after their arrest or conviction.
I’m on the right track now, doing right by myself, my god, my family and my community. One of the ways I’m giving back to my community is by working to create an economy that includes me and others who have served our time and are following the rules of probation or parole. A study released by the Vera Institute of Justice found that states across the country are giving people like me a second chance not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it will reduce crime and prison costs by preventing recidivism.
One obstacle to opportunity that many states are addressing is the lifetime ban on receiving public benefits and job assistance through Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for people who have a prior drug-related felony conviction. Research has shown that this policy increases recidivism and crime and is also harmful to children as well as adults who are trying to start over. In addition to causing hunger and hardship, it can also prevent people from getting the mental-health or substance-abuse treatment they need, as many of these programs rely on public assistance funding to pay individuals’ room and board. Repeal of this harmful policy has been supported by The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and is included in the REDEEM Act, bipartisan legislation co-sponsored by US Senators Cory Booker and Rand Paul.