Just Change: Engaging Communities To Create Change

Transitioning back in to the community after being incarcerated is a difficult and complicated process. We know those who are imprisoned are likely to be poor, have limited education, represent a minority group, and suffer from mental illness and/or substance abuse. When they get out, these problems have not gone away, but are magnified. Instead of just being disadvantaged, people who were formerly incarcerated are forever branded ex-offenders or ex-convicts.

This stigma comes with a host of new problems; trouble finding employment, securing housing, paying bills, and re-connecting with family and friends. Instead of a warm homecoming, isolation and hopelessness are what they find waiting for them.

Non-profit groups, state agencies, and the federal government work diligently to solve the problem of re-integrating those who have served time back into society. But the process is so complex and multi-dimensional these programs often fail to curb recidivism.

So criminal justice reform leaders recently asked those directly impacted by the criminal justice system, “What works and what doesn’t?” At last week’s Just Change Northeast Regional gathering sponsored by the College and Community Fellowship and JustLeadership USA, citizens who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system spoke to officials from the federal government about solutions to the problem of mass incarceration and re-entry.

A focal point of the conference was how to gain access to the ladders of opportunity and social capital needed to become productive, contributing members of society. Employment, housing, education, civic participation, and participation in the electoral process were all part of the day’s discussions.

The “lived experiences” shared at the conference can serve as guideposts for future policy changes. One woman shared how she studied cosmetology in prison, but was denied a license to practice because she was a felon. Another man shared how he learned computer skills on a computer that was twenty years out-of-date.

Those who commit and are found guilty of a crime must pay their debt to society based on our social contract. However, they remain members of our society, even while they are doing their time. We have a responsibility to provide job skills training, access to higher educational opportunities, and full participation in civic life to those in prison so they have a chance at creating a life beyond prison. To condemn a person to “outsider” status for the rest of their lives is not productive, cost-effective, or moral.

It is time we started listening more.  This conference was a good start. Glenn Martin of JustLeadership USA, said it best, “Those closest to the problem, are closest to the solution.” Amen to that.