Second Chance Month is a failed promise for former inmates. Here’s how we can fix that

Since 2017, April is observed as Second Chance Month in the United States. This year is no different. President Biden released his proclamation on March 29 and announced, “During Second Chance Month, we recommit to building a criminal justice system that lives up to those ideals so that people returning to their communities from jail or prison have a fair shot at the American Dream.”

Let’s start with the good news. I believe the American people have a built-in propensity towards fairness. On the whole, we move to what is right and away from what is wrong. It takes some time, but I think people are driven by a natural law to make things more equitable. So, Americans understand that all of us are imperfect and all of us make mistakes. In fact, I think we like the arc of imperfection in America—make a mistake, admit it, pay for it, and then start again with a clean slate. Beautiful. It is nice that April is the month for second chances for people who have gone to prison. After all, April is springtime when rebirth can happen.

But, now, we also have to deal with reality. The bad news is that, despite the now popular appeal of giving judicially involved people a second chance, the data around the realism of a blank slate is stark. Over the past 32 years that I have been working within the judicial system, the recidivism rate remains stubbornly high. In the early 1990s, out of 100 people who went to prison, about 67 went back within three years. The most recent government report on the same figures shows that number edged down to 66 out of 100. Let’s be honest—not much progress despite the hype.

There are many reasons for the lack of movement, but the fact is that it is still very hard for people to get work. If people cannot get decent employment, it is not rocket science that they would end up back in prison—they cannot provide for themselves. Related directly to this, it does not help that, now, as compared to the early ’90s, if you are “judicially involved,” there is probably a record of this that can be found through a Google search. And, there is no length of time at which the record is expunged from the internet. So, even if you have a DUI or “failure to appear,” your transgression remains on the internet in perpetuity.

Needless to say, this does not help when people apply for jobs. One of the first things every human resources department does with an applicant is type the person’s name into a search engine, and the first thing that pops up for an ex-offender is his or her record, and usually a prominent and distinctively unattractive mugshot taken at one of the lowest points of the person’s life. Of course, realistically, no matter what companies say, that knocks judicially involved people right out of the pool of applicants. So, despite our good intentions, the more than 600,000 people released from prison each year in the United States are left with not much of a second chance at all. This does not absolve them of the responsibility to try, but it means that the slate is very far from blank. Basically, people who make a mistake are punished forever.

This case is also an opportunity for effective government. There is a place for laws. We may not like our politicians, but we need the laws that they pass. If we truly want to give former inmates a second chance, we need to urge Congress to require some criminal records to be expunged from internet search results, and to encourage ex-offenders to start their own businesses.

What can the government do to help out?

  1. Require that people’s criminal records, especially for nonviolent crimes, be expunged from internet search results after a certain period of time. Until we do that, HR departments will routinely discriminate against ex-offenders.
  2. Give tax credits to employers who hire judicially involved folks.
  3. Help ex-offenders start businesses. The customer of a small-business owner is not going to ask the owner if he’s been in prison. They just want a good product or service. And, it is important to note, former inmates who have their own businesses are more likely to hire former inmates. Helping inmates start and run their own businesses affords them a second chance in the workforce and in society.

Every disenfranchised group in this country has climbed the social and economic ladder in two ways—by getting better educated and/or by starting their own businesses. America was built by entrepreneurs. Help give former inmates a second chance to turn their lives around by contacting your lawmakers and urging them to make these three changes in current laws.

Brian Hamilton is a nationally-recognized entrepreneur and the chairman of LiveSwitch. He is the founder of the Brian Hamilton Foundation and Inmates to Entrepreneurs, where he serves as the leading voice on the power of ownership to transform lives. He is most well known for being the founder of Sageworks (now Abrigo), one of the country’s first fintech companies. He is also the star of Free Enterprise, an award-winning show on ABC based on Inmates to Entrepreneurs.

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