Amid the polarized politics of an election year, an unlikely bipartisan consensus has emerged on the need for criminal justice reform. With the support of Democratic Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, Congress is looking to reduce the federal prison population through the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. Closer to home, the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission has backed shorter sentences for lesser drug offenses.
The conversation about corrections reform is overdue. But now that it has begun, it still addresses only half of the problem. We must also recognize — and work to change — what happens after prison for the more than 600,000 Americans who are released each year. A “second prison” of obstacles and stigma cruelly confines millions of Americans and their families, long after their debts to society have, in theory, been paid in full.
We lose the return on our investment in criminal justice if people who do exactly what we ask them to do — pay for their crime, turn over a new leaf and learn skills for a productive future — are unable to access opportunities after release. We seem to believe that people can change; yet we limit returning citizens’ opportunities to engage in civic life, blocking some 50,000 Minnesotans from voting. We love stories of personal transformation, but the road to redemption remains steep and full of potholes for those with a criminal record.
In the last several decades, “tough-on-crime” policies contributed to the explosive growth of the prison population. Communities wanted to feel safer; locking people up and putting restrictions on them after prison seemed logical. Now, the ballooning effects of those policies are being felt.
A quarter of all American adults — 65 million people — now have a criminal record. They confront more than 44,000 documented restrictions — some reasonable but many arbitrary and counterproductive — that dictate whether they can vote, where they can live and what kind of work they can perform. Some people do not even need to be convicted of a crime to get thrown into the “second prison.” A mistaken background check is sometimes all it takes. The burden of the “second prison” is now crushing communities that restrictive policies were supposed to keep safe.
Tough policies were intended to protect responsible, civic-minded Americans from “them” — a small proportion of people who were intent on doing harm. But now that contact with the criminal justice system has become a common experience, “those people” are taxpayers, veterans and parents — our friends, family members and next-door neighbors, including an estimated 1 million Minnesotans. “They” are “us.”
For people whose social circles do not include people with a criminal record, the reality of life in the second prison can be hard to grasp. For that reason, Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest outreach to prisoners, former prisoners and their families, founded the Second Prison Project. This nationwide campaign seeks to transform the cultural perception of people who have been through the criminal justice system.
On Sunday, Prison Fellowship will host the inaugural Twin Cities Second Chances 5K Run/Walk, an event co-sponsored by the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition and Concordia University St. Paul in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Corrections. The event will allow members of the community to rub shoulders with real Minnesotans who have paid their debt to society but who still live with the reality of the second prison.
These are vital interactions. It is only through understanding and relationships that people will realize it is in everyone’s best interests to reform the second prison. On the same day, 650 people behind bars also will participate in running events inside Minnesota correctional facilities, advocating for the second chances they are now preparing for.
Some people cannot safely be in the community; we have prisons for a reason. But for the 95 percent of people who will come home after serving a prison sentence, their punishment should not last a lifetime. We should extend to them what we would wish for ourselves — an opportunity to start over, a chance to unlock our God-given potential — and to become known for something better than our worst moments.
Al Quie was governor of Minnesota from 1979 to 1983 and helped Prison Fellowship launch an intensive, values-based prisoner re-entry program at a correctional facility in Lino Lakes. Jesse Wiese, a former prisoner and subsequent law graduate, is director of community engagement at Prison Fellowship.