When Coming Home Means Being Shut Out: Expanding Reentry to All Types of Offenses

by Elena Weissmann

Every day, 1,885 individuals return home to their communities from prison, but for those who were convicted of what are defined as violent or sex offenses, this transition is harder to come by.  Our nation is facing the reality that our over-punitive response to drug use has made us the number one incarcerator in the world.  However, our reaction has been to shift our focus from imposing lifelong punishment after prison for individuals convicted of drug offenses to all of the people convicted of other crimes.

We need to instead deconstruct barriers to reentry for everyone in order to improve public safety, reduce recidivism, and strengthen the communities people return to. If our ultimate goal is to put an end to mass incarceration and foster a society that stymies recidivism, we cannot ignore the 20 million individuals who are barred from “reentry” after their release from incarceration because they were convicted of what constitutes a serious offense.

There’s a burgeoning public interest in making reentry work: in ensuring that formerly incarcerated individuals can get jobs, education, housing, and all the other foundational elements of independence upon their return to their communities. Since President Obama took office in 2009, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has invested over $400 million in reentry initiatives that aim to strengthen communities by deconstructing barriers to reentry. But by limiting the scope of these programs to only a fraction of the 1,885, many programs and jurisdictions maintain impenetrable barriers for some of our communities’ most stigmatized members.

We may be a “nation of second chances” for some, but for those convicted of violent crimes and sex offenses, one chance is the limit. (And that’s a generous count in a nation where young men of color are more likely to see the inside of a jail cell than the inside of a university lecture hall.) The resources allocated to reentry programs and services for those coming home from prison after being convicted of serious offenses are minimal, if not invisible, when compared to their counterparts for nonviolent offenses.

When we focus our reentry efforts on the so-called “non non nons” (non-violent, non-sexual, non-serious offenders), we frame the conversation in terms of who is deserving of self-determination versus who is not. Advocates and governments alike have agreed that “blanket bans” on hiring, licensing, and housing people with criminal records is illegal, and that individualized assessments are required. Why do we stand for such a practice in reentry services?

In both the media and policy spheres, reentry is touted as the antidote to recidivism. This marriage is particularly troubling when we consider the case of those convicted of serious offenses: it is exactly the pervasive fear of sharing society with a population seen as capable of serious wrongdoing that drives their exclusion from the reentry and, by this logic, drives their potential recidivism. Those convicted of serious crimes face lengthy exclusions from employment and housing, landing many back in situations where they face impossible balancing acts that set the stage for future offenses.

These exclusions also further destabilize communities that are often in the most need of the stability afforded by reentry initiatives.  It is a flaw in logic and a disregard of our values to limit these services to only those we deem worthy of participating in our communities after completing their sentences.

This week has been established as National Reentry Week by the DOJ, in an effort to highlight and catalyze the importance of reentry initiatives. It is also Passover: a time when Jewish communities all over the world come together to reflect and retell the Israelites’ story of redemption and journey out of slavery in Egypt. There are a number of undeniable parallels between the Passover story and the need for criminal justice reform, but one in particular stands out. When the Israelites cross the parted waters of the Red Sea and witness the Egyptian army plunge fatally into the surf, they are implored not to celebrate their oppressors’ death. They are reminded that justice does not suggest retribution and that the two groups share a common humanity.

During Reentry Week, let’s not just celebrate the important strides made to support individuals’ successful reentry to the community from incarceration.  Let’s also improve a system which too frequently dehumanizes such an enormous segment of the human population. Let’s institute big-picture reforms that focus not just on certain people impacted by the criminal justice system, but that ensure universal access and full participation for all individuals with a conviction history.  Let’s ensure that all people with conviction histories are eligible for and receive effective reentry services, including those funded through the Second Chance Act.  The long-term impact of reentry on individuals and society at large remains equally powerful regardless of what we name the conviction.

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