During my early years in the 1970s, my friends and I would play cops and robbers, based on the hit series “CHiPs” – where the good guys were clearly good and the bad guys were very, very bad. In the 1980s, the cops and robbers show was “Miami Vice” where the good guys were still good and the bad guys were still very, very bad.
Meanwhile, in the 1990s, many things had evolved, yet the good guys were still pretty good and the bad guys were even worse on “NYPD Blue.” My understanding of the criminal justice system was based upon the consistent message I had grown to understand as an avid student of American crime-series pop culture.
Then I had a life-changing experience. I visited the Hudson County Jail in northern New Jersey. Twenty years later, I can still vividly remember the rhythmic sound of sturdy locks opening, followed by heavy doors slamming shut, and then the locks swinging back home. It was a deafening and consistent reminder to the residents of that institution that they were “inmates” who were very, very bad.
The Story of “Andre”
That day, I met a real inmate, who I’ll call Andre. He served as a sergeant in the military during the first Gulf War. He was articulate and clearly smart, and… he broke the mental model I’d learned to understand thanks to Hollywood. As I listened to him speak about his efforts to lead the rehabilitation program run by the faith-based organization I then worked for, I finally blurted out a question, “How is it that you are in here?” He explained that he left the military with a bad drug habit and that he had attempted robbery to get money to buy drugs. Most importantly, he made no excuses for what he had done and he validated the need for him being held accountable for his crime.
I don’t know for certain what became of Andre since my visit to the Hudson County Jail. Yet, I know the statistics. Approximately two-thirds of the people released from prison recidivate within three years of their release. One of the primary reasons that people, like Andre, recidivate is because their criminal records present an enormous employment challenge. Without a means to legitimately make money to support themselves (and/or their families), they violate parole (more often, for technical violations rather than for reoffending).
In 2008, Congress passed the Second Chance Act, thereby acknowledging that the Hollywood portrayal of criminals is flawed. Among other things, the Second Chance Act authorizes programs that aim to help people, like Andre, to successfully reintegrate back into their communities after they have been incarcerated.
This year, these important programs need to be reauthorized through the Second Chance Reauthorization Act. This Act has bipartisan support and has been introduced in both that House and Senate. More co-sponsors will send a clear signal to Congressional leaders that they should pave the way for the bill’s ultimate passage and enactment into law.
There are people just like Andre in your community. Pause your DVR recording of NCIS and click here to urge your members of Congress to co-sponsor the Second Chance Reauthorization Act.