- - Friday, April 30, 2021

In the United States, nearly one in three Americans have a criminal record and often face tremendous challenges in education, employment opportunities, and housing in addition to the social ostracization that often plagues former inmates. Their struggles are why every April, our nation commemorates Second Chances month to help raise awareness and promote second chance opportunities for former inmates who have successfully rejoined society.

Moreover, it is also important that we take the time to inform and educate our nation’s law-abiding citizens about the positive benefits successful rehabilitation will have on them.

America First Policy Institute’s (AFPI) Center for Second Chances advocates for a conservative approach to criminal justice reform that prioritizes public safety, personal responsibility and government accountability to help inmates successfully reenter society thereby reducing recidivism and enhancing public safety.

Look no further than the story of Matthew Charles to show the power that a reformed criminal justice system can have.

Charles was arrested at age 30 for attempting to sell crack cocaine to an informant alongside carrying an illegal firearm. For this, he was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison. However, in prison, his reformation was transformative. A man who used to push drugs on the street devoted his life to Christ, devoted his mind to studies — eventually becoming a law clerk — and served as a role model in the prison.

When released as a fully rehabilitated man in 2016, the system failed him and, due to a paperwork error, had promptly returned him back to a life behind bars. That system was repaired, to an extent, by the passage of the First Step Act on Dec. 21, 2018. President Donald Trump signed it — and Charles was freed again, this time for good.

Charles’ story shows the power of a reformed criminal justice system — championed by the Center for Second Chances — that is focused on successful rehabilitation, reduced recidivism, and strong reentry programs.

However, Charles’ story of redemption is far from commonplace even though, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, approximately 77 million Americans have a criminal record. Research also shows that among these individuals, low-income communities are most likely to be affected and are subsequently at a massive disadvantage upon release. These barriers can be particularly restrictive when former inmates attempt to pursue different employment opportunities like occupational licenses.

For example, according to the National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction, an extensive database of all the collateral consequences in all U.S. jurisdictions, there are well more than 6,000 mandatory occupational licensing consequences for individuals with a criminal record. These unnecessary hurdles have led to a vicious cycle of recidivism where, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 67.8% of released state prisoners were arrested for a new crime within three years and 76.7% were arrested within five years. However, when former inmates are given the opportunity of meaningful employment, evidence suggested a precipitous fall in the risk of recidivism.

The Center for Second Chances recognizes that allowing nonviolent former prisoners an opportunity at the Dignity of Work is an important step in reversing the often-cumbersome barriers to reentry. 

Second Chances month is also a unique opportunity to educate communities across the country on the positive benefits that a conservative approach to criminal justice reform can have on society. First among them is the prioritization of public safety. Conservative criminal justice reform policies do not, unlike more liberal approaches, discard the importance of public safety. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Uniform Crime Report, violent crime from 2019 to 2020 generally decreased around the country, with the Northeast of the U.S. experiencing the largest fall of approximately 5%.

However, this does not suggest that Americans feel any safer. Look no further than a 2020 USA Today/Ipsos poll that found that over a third of Americans felt that crime, violence, or unrest was on the rise and that 63% of Americans thought assault of our nation’s police officers has gotten worse.

It is here that the Center for Second Chances respects the tremendous risks that police officers face every day and seeks to bring them into the conversation to preserve the safety of neighborhoods throughout the country. The inclusion of the law enforcement community only builds the coalition for meaningful reform, helps facilitate a continuous drop in violent crime, and reaffirms the value of intracommunity dialogue in addressing the criminal justice system.

As we head toward the end of Second Chances month this year, it is important to not only recognize, but assist some of the most vulnerable throughout our nation while reaffirming our commitment to law-abiding citizens. State and local governments ought to give those who have served their time for nonviolent crimes, like Charles, a chance at the Dignity of Work and ensure communities feel safe and secure as former inmates are rehabilitated back into society. 

AFPI’s Center for Second Chances embraces this dynamic and conservative approach to criminal justice reform as we seek to correct historical wrongs and ensure the safety of communities around the country.

Jack Brewer is Chairman of the America First Policy Institute’s Center for Opportunity Now. In 2011, Brewer founded the Brewer Group, an investment and consulting firm, and was previously a wealth manager at Merrill Lynch. Brewer played in the NFL for the Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, and the Arizona Cardinals.

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