For our families, communities and public safety, give ex-offenders a second chance

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There are currently 155,000 Minnesota adults under some form of correctional supervision — 142,000 on probation, 4,200 on some level of supervised release, and 9,100 in prison. At least 95 percent of those in prison will eventually be released.

“The actual prison population is overwhelmingly male, and overwhelmingly minority,” noted Sarah Walker, director of juvenile services at 180 Degrees, a Minneapolis-based organization that runs a halfway house. Eighty percent of all male prisoners have a child, she said, adding that the number of female prisoners has been rapidly increasing in the past 10 years.

Getting a second chance often becomes an elusive goal for too many ex-offenders, who must face housing and employment barriers upon their re-entering society. Even getting a student loan can be difficult for someone wishing to pursue an education who possesses a criminal record.

These barriers are the reason for the “Second Chance Day on the Hill” scheduled for February 13 at the State Capitol in St. Paul. On this day, several organizations, many of which are heavily involved in criminal justice issues, are calling for the Minnesota Legislature and the general public to seriously begin looking at “Second Chance” legislation.

Representatives from these organizations have met weekly over the last few months to plan this event. Organizers are anticipating that at least 1,000 ex-offenders, their family members, and supporters of criminal justice system reform will attend.

“This is the first time in many years that I have seen so many diverse organizations come together for one issue,” Walker said. “I think we wouldn’t be having this conversation 10 years ago. What we have now is a window of opportunity to look at things [in] a pragmatic way.”

“The Day” organizers also want the general public to be aware of the importance of Second Chance legislation, continued Walker. “Second chances are about public safety,” she pointed out. “If you want to increase public safety, you need to facilitate successful re-entry [of ex-offenders].

“Everyone gets scared, and everyone wants to feel safe in their community. All I am saying is to give someone a second chance, you are going to make your community safer.”

Among the principles the Second Chance supporters emphasize are:

• Providing ex-offenders with fair access to housing, employment, credit, and higher education, along with restoring their voting rights;

• Making sure all criminal background checks are accurate and up-to-date;

• Providing treatment programs in correctional facilities, including improved prison mental-health intervention programs, and providing diversionary community-based programs for first offenders;

• Eliminating collateral punishment so that once offenders have served their time, they do not face unnecessary and unfair side effects once they are back in society;

• Providing rehabilitative opportunities for offenders while incarcerated, and preparing willing individuals to become productive members of their communities when they are released;

• Ensuring that punishment falls on the offender and not on the offender’s children, other family members, and communities; and

• Developing pragmatic and cost-effective approaches to public safety.

Upon their release from prison, most ex-offenders then experience a vicious cycle of circumstances, Walker explained. “If you don’t have stable housing, you have trouble finding a job because you don’t have a regular residence. However, you have trouble finding stable housing if you don’t have any income.

“I think the two most important things [facing ex-offenders] are barriers to employment and opportunities to stable housing,” said Walker.

A University of Minnesota doctoral student, Walker has been involved in criminal justice issues for a long time. “I have been interested in this all through my undergraduate years,” she noted. “Criminal justice is where all issues of disparity come in: poverty, mental health, inequality and racism. If you want to address all these issues, they all end up in prison.”

Also, Walker has a personal stake in second chance issues. “I stole something, and I ended up in big trouble,” she admitted. “I was able to not go to prison or spend any significant time in jail.”

Nonetheless, Walker now has a criminal record. “I am still not eligible for many types of employment. There were many schools who wouldn’t accept me [for graduate school] because I have a criminal record.”

The U.S. House of Representatives last November passed a Second Chance bill (H.R. 1593). Now awaiting U.S. Senate action, the bill calls for federal funding for ex-offender reentry services and job training.

Now it is Minnesota’s turn to do something as well, Walker concluded.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com, or read his blog, www.challman.blogspot.com