- - Monday, March 29, 2021

The United States incarcerates its citizens more than any other country in the world. We only have about 5% of the world’s population but about 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. 

When released from prison and trying to rejoin their communities, former offenders face legal restrictions and social stigmas that create barriers to employment, education and housing. 

Our mission at the Center for Advancing Opportunity is to move people living in fragile communities from promise to prosperity, focusing on providing research and developing solutions that will create change for the forgotten men and women of this country. This includes those in prison, many of whom have been marginalized by poverty and discouraged by unequal treatment. 

Without the resources and support to overcome these challenges, there’s a greater probability that former incarcerated individuals will commit more crime and return to prison. 

One of the proudest moments of my life was standing next to President Trump in the Oval Office and watching him sign the First Step Act, a historic criminal-justice reform bill I helped negotiate. The First Step Act has made American communities safer, changed the way many people think about prisons and prisoners, reunited many formerly incarcerated people with their families, and overall improved hundreds of thousands of lives.

The First Step Act is certainly a step in the right direction at the federal level, but there’s still more work to be done. Most incarcerated people are held in state and county facilities, and that’s why state reform is critical. 

April is Second Chance Month, a time to raise awareness about the barriers former offenders continue to face and ensure that the millions of Americans with a criminal record have the opportunity for a brighter future — a true second chance.

We can do this by providing prisoners with access to postsecondary education, mentorship and life-skills training as well as workforce certificates and credentials. By providing adequate, stable and affordable housing. And by ensuring secure, meaningful employment and re-entry support.

Prisons and jails must be places of personal transformation. Incarcerated individuals should be given access to tools to improve their lives and develop a support system so they leave prison equipped to become productive citizens. In addition, it’s essential that we support these individuals during the challenging weeks and months after their release. 

Through individual action, reform and the academic research we support at the Center for Advancing Opportunity, we can work toward a future of second chances. This will ultimately lead us to stronger families, healthier economies and safer communities.

America is a nation founded on the idea of second chances. It’s our job as a society to figure out a bipartisan way to offer hope and opportunity to those incarcerated. Addressing the struggles of former offenders is not only a way to combat recidivism, it is a matter of dignity and humanity.

• Ja’Ron Smith is the executive director of the Center for Advancing Opportunity.

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