Last updated: May 09. 2014 1:30PM - 526 Views
By Larry Sutton Contributing columnist

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America’s addiction to mass incarceration has impacted our society in vastly negative and destructive ways, especially the impact it has on the family. It is obvious that something is not working. But one important fact to ponder is: 95 percent of incarcerated individuals in North Carolina will eventually leave prison and come back home.

For many, returning home will be a defining moment in their lives, with many hoping for a new beginning, wanting to turn their lives around. One would think that the phrase “with liberty and justice for all” extends to all American citizens. Not exactly. Far too many ex-offenders are still treated as second-class citizens who are made to feel alienated in their own community. Many are excluded from various memberships and volunteer activities due to their arrest or conviction history.

My motivation for addressing this issue is driven by fairness. Should we be more supportive of ex-offenders? Absolutely! We should be doing much more in our community to help former offenders transition and re-enter society, offering services to help with employment, housing and education. We need to remove barriers to productive citizenship while working to support the successful integration of persons with criminal records. I believe all people should have a chance to succeed at establishing a regular job life.

Even though the vast majority of the prison population in N.C. will eventually come back home, about 50 percent of ex-offenders will re-offend and return to prison for new crimes. And that’s where we, as a community, need to intervene and open up opportunities for people with past convictions, thus creating new avenues for employment, housing and education. Employment has been shown to be the paramount factor in reducing, recidivism, returning to prison.

For those former offenders who are serious about a productive future, coming home is a defining moment, with many standing ready to prove themselves. I believe everyone deserves a fair chance, and we need to provide assistance for those who are actively seeking ways to improve their lives. Once they are given the opportunity, then let them rise or fall on their own merit. Our community’s response should not be to erect barriers that impede their growth and prosperity.

But that fair chance is too often impeded by eight simple words: “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” This is the most dreaded question found on many job applications, making it harder for ex-offenders to find a job. Ironically, this same question makes it more likely that some will re-offend and return to prison, thus becoming a $27,000 a year burden for society again. Something seems terribly wrong about this when offering employment to ex-offenders can help make them contributing citizens and subsequently lowering cost to taxpayers.

Just maybe it’s time we allow ex-offenders the opportunity to display and demonstrate their qualifications in the hiring process before being asked about their past criminal convictions, at least to some degree. Obviously, one size does not fit all.

Let’s not forget “the welfare of one group can only be maintained through assuring the welfare of another.”

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