On March 31, President Joe Biden issued a proclamation designating April 2021, as Second Chance Month.
The yearly designation was started in 2017 by the Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families.
But it has been picked up by the Congress, and this year Biden laid out his own version of Second Chance Month, with his proclamation that emphasized the need for a re-examination of who “we send to prison and for how long;” how people are “treated while incarcerated; how prepared they are to reenter society once they have served their time; and the racial inequities that lead to the disproportionate number of incarcerated Black and Brown people” being locked up for long periods.
The president also laid out the scope of the issue, noting in the proclamation that more than 600,000 individuals return to their communities from state and federal prisons every year, but that “transitioning back into society can be overwhelming for those who are formerly incarcerated as well as their families and communities” — namely because too many states still have daunting legal barriers to a successful reentry on the books. And there are the societal barriers, such as many employers’ resistance to hiring somebody with a record, or renting to them.
“A person’s conviction history should not unfairly exclude them from employment, occupational licenses, access to credit, public benefits, or the right to vote,” the president states in his proclamation. “Certain criminal records should be expunged and sealed so people can overcome their past.”
Biden addressed one of those issue at the federal level when he directed federal agencies to facilitate voting for those in federal custody or under federal supervision.
Obviously, re-designating April as Second Chance Month costs the president nothing, and guarantees zero in the way of concrete reform, especially when the administration has its hands full with its big new infrastructure bill, and even more urgently, with the urgency that surrounds passing H.R. 1, the For The People Act, to protect voting rights, which will not make it though the senate passed with through senate without modifying the filibuster, or fully doing away with it.
Nevertheless, the president’s April proclamation feels like a small but visible flag that was planted by the Biden administration, which communicates that the president knows the topic of justice reform needs to be firmly on his list.
Prosecutors and LE leaders want concrete change
Today, April 8, using the president’s proclamation as a jumping off point, 64 district attorneys, attorneys general, and law enforcement leaders have issued a joint statement that urges federal and state policy makers to create mechanisms to accomplish some of what the president points to with his Second Chance Month proclamation.
“Over the past forty years, America’s criminal legal system has strayed from sound public safety and fiscally prudent objectives,” say the prosecutors and law enforcement leaders in their new statement. “We continue to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of individuals who currently pose little to no risk to community safety, including many elderly people who cost the United States over $16 billion a year for care. Mandatory sentences that require people to serve a set minimum number of years for a given crime, notwithstanding their unique circumstances or safety risk, have also needlessly incarcerated people past the point of any public safety benefit. Our country currently has more people serving life sentences than the total number of people who were incarcerated in 1970. And we have the dubious distinction of an incarceration rate second to no other country.”
As is often the case, Thursday’s statement was organized by Fair & Just Prosecution, the non-profit founded by former federal prosecutor Miriam Krinsky, which has become a serious force in the growing movement toward prosecutorial reform.
Among the reform issues mentioned in the new statement are the following:
– The creation of sentencing review units in prosecutor offices, with the purpose of identifying cases for reconsideration or modification that feature over-long sentences handed down during the tough-on-crime era, which now neither serve public safety, nor the health of communities and families.
– The creation of similar vehicles for sentencing review on a state and federal level.
– The expanded use of compassionate release and the “elimination of obstacles and barriers that permeate the process.” Justice reformers argue that this should not be difficult, in that during some of the worst periods of the COVID-19 crisis, many states and counties found that they could engage in a broader pattern of compassionate release, without creating a crime wave or bringing down the Empire.
And more after that.
Last Thursday, the first day of Second Chance Month, the proclamation precipitated a flood of tweets from and about people whose personal stories illustrate what second chances can accomplish.
There was, for example scientist, professor, endocrinologist, Stanley Andrisse, who works at Howard University and John’s Hopkins, but who, in his past, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for drug trafficking. “My prosecuting attorney,” he wrote, “once stated that I had no hope for change.”
A1 I am a formerly incarcerated person with 3 felony convictions, sentenced to 10 years in prison. I was told by a prosecutor that I had no hope for change. I am now a endocrinologist & professor at @HowardU College of Med @JusticeReform #SecondChanceMonth https://t.co/ieAAPwafYR pic.twitter.com/kDW6tU6P19
— Prof. Stan Andrisse (@Prof_Andrisse) April 1, 2021
And there is Buffy Summers, a formerly incarcerated woman who is now an epidemiologist, among other accomplishments.
#SecondChanceMonth is personal for me. SO MANY told me I was worthless after my arrest 7 years ago
Now, I’m a 28 y/o epidemiologist with a specialty in infectious diseases, a published writer, and I own a nonprofit aiding other formerly incarcerated women finish their education! pic.twitter.com/Pq8y21fODA
— Buffy Summers (@NotGeauxGabby) April 4, 2021
And in yet another tweet, Sheila Meade, managing director of the Clean Slate Initiative, posted a video of two former lifers she was wise enough to video as they talked about the importance of never giving up.
Unfortunately, as both the president and today’s statement point out, we aren’t even close to righting the wrongs the prosecutors mention in their statement. Nor are we close to embracing the goals embodied by Joe Biden’s version of #SecondChanceMonth.
Still, calling attention to these critical matters is a beginning.