Posted at 11:00 am on July 12, 2020 by Lenny McAllister
As well, much of the American Dream also applies to the requisite nature of grace within our nation. The United States, a land of appropriate “second chances” to immigrants and native-born countrymen alike, always shines best as that unique city on a hill when we prioritize making our communities robust, prosperous, and envied by the world due to the resiliency of our people as afforded by the American Way. That’s why the focus on criminal justice reform – while necessary – must be more than just what we got in 2018 with the First Step Act and certainly aside from the “dismantle the police” proposals that have been pushed throughout the past several months. Much of criminal justice reform coming from the free markets movement has centered on policies that allow the formerly-incarcerated to have more access to employment. Removing the“good moral character” barrier in many Americans’ path to employment after the over-incarceration of our nation is key, but we must ensure that the overall effort does not merely make the “Scarlett Letter” smaller on one’s chest. If one pays a debt to society for prior wrong-doing, then truly reforms towards a wholesome life, one must be made whole again – from voting rights to employment rights. It is the only way to fulfill the promise of the American Dream for many who have found themselves on the wrong side of society and the law. Further, it is a necessary component of re-opening and reclaiming our fullest potential during the economic and societal aftermath of COVID-19. We need all hands on deck.
Take the story of Hagerstown (MD) convenience store owner Altimont Mark Wilks; (again, “hat tip” to Streiff for the lead). Like many small entrepreneurs, Mr. Wilks found himself in a crisis after COVID-19 shutdowns impacted his business in a multitude of ways. Unlike most entrepreneurs, his years of being incarcerated put him at a legal disadvantage in getting the help through PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) funding that would keep his convenience store alive – not only as an essential business providing food for those facing food desert conditions, but as a community staple and an example of turning around one’s life to contribute positively. If AIG can receive billions in bailout money in 2009 after helping to cause the Great Recession – only to pay out millions in bonuses to those whose wrongful actions prompted the global downturn – why shouldn’t a man who actually paid for his wrongdoing receive an opportunity to continue his business?
Take the story of Corry Sanders. He is a McKeesport (PA) church deacon who rebuilt his life after accepting a no-plea conviction to a felony drug charge as a 22-year-old that landed him in prison. After reforming his life as a business owner and community leader, Sanders was found ineligible for holding local office after winning a citywide election for council in 2015. A man capable of providing insight and direction to turn around the tragic conditions we see in towns such as McKeesport (i.e., the 4th most dangerous city in America), Sanders needed a 2019 full pardon from the governor before having a chance to fulfill his potential as a servant-leader. Currently, he works with Allegheny County’s elected government. Yet, why should it take the most political of actions to untangle red tape in areas where action is needed the most?
The American story is built from the belief that there are always opportunities for one to contribute to the diverse richness and strength that is America. Criminal justice reform and restoration after “paying one’s debt to society” cannot merely be defined as an effort to make one less destitute, less ostracized, and less “second class”. The next steps in criminal justice reform must also include policies that afford us as a nation the ability to fully re-introduce and include the talents and contributions of the truly reformed. This cannot just be an option for those with access to power, access to money, and access to privilege. The sneaky reminders of “second class citizenship” for millions of Americans in 2020 hide in the details of items such as criminal justice reform, where restoration remains conditional throughout the remainder of one’s life for some and rehabilitation post-sentence means a complete redo for others. Not only is this unjust, but it is also unwise during a pandemic where every worker, every dollar, and every contribution to re-opening and rebuilding American communities is key to overcoming the adversities of 2020. Therefore, reform must include wholeness in a higher sense more often for those that matriculate through the criminal justice system.
Too often, the effort within the criminal justice reform movement takes the phrase and focuses too much on the criminal and not enough on the justice: what is appropriate, what is fair, what provides hope past the punishment, and what allows for the fulfillment of inspiration in each possible “second chance” situation. Leaders from Washington to Lincoln and from Douglass to Mandela have shown the world that, regardless of prior emotional, physical, or legal conditions, there are opportunities to lead people to a better way of life if afforded that chance. We must ensure that our criminal justice system, with the necessary modifications to come in 2020 and beyond, stops locking up the potential of Americans. Too often, that occurs past the point of time while they were locked up, thus forcing us all to incur an unnecessary, ongoing debt on our society.