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Chance, Choice, Change, Compete 

Merlyn Karst

With the federal passage of the FIRST STEP Act, we finally see action on criminal justice reform!

The FIRST STEP Act recently passed and was signed by the President. This was historical. For years, Congress had attempted to pass criminal justice reform legislation, such as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA) introduced in 2015 by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). But the SRCA failed to pass in 2016 despite overwhelming bipartisan support. The FIRST STEP Act is consequential because it includes provisions for meaningful sentencing reform that would reduce the number of people in prison and is part of the starting point of any legislative justice reform. Sentencing laws played a central role in the rise of mass incarceration in recent decades.

Closer to home, the Vice Chair of the Colorado House Judiciary Committee has introduced a bill titled Colorado Chance to Compete — House Bill 1025 — (sometimes referred to as “ban the box”). As a step for Colorado, Vice-Chair Leslie Herod writes: “A question in particular that appears on most, if not all, job applications is this: ‘Have you ever been arrested, charged or convicted of a crime?’ If you answer yes to this question, the likely result is your application will be disregarded. You won’t be interviewed. You simply won’t be considered for the job. The bill addresses this issue and does so in a moderate and measured way. It simply says that businesses cannot ask this question on the application but can do so later in the interview process. The bill is an important criminal justice reform initiative and makes good economic sense.”

The good news is that approximately 25 states and hundreds of municipalities across the country have passed similar laws, with positive outcomes. Simply stated, employment and contributing to community reduces recidivism. Here’s another significant Herod statistic: “Ninety-six percent of ex-offenders when trained into skilled jobs succeed. They don’t re-offend. The greatest influence on reducing recidivism is employment”.

Think of the current situation where there are more jobs than workers to fill them. Beyond the application, an interview may reveal a hidden treasure developed from a lived experience that serves to enhance potential worth of an individual. In an interview, skills may be revealed that fit the employer’s needs.

The Colorado bill has significance for me. In the early nineties, I lived in Southern California and served as administrator for a program that provided alternatives to incarceration. A pioneer in such matters, Nancy Clark, began the Alternative Sentencing Program—A.S.P. Not at public expense, but at the court’s direction, individuals were allowed to become a part of a community of recovery centers for a determinate length of time, depending on the nature of the misdemeanor. Generally, the misuse of drugs may have been involved, particularly alcohol. Individuals experienced a loss of freedom through administration of the expectations and direction of the Judges. They also experienced financial responsibility and accountability.

A.S.P. provided reason and resources to reduce recidivism. It provides education and information to guide positive, life-changing behaviors. I refer to it as a truly teachable time on a tether. Employment or community service is required. Individuals were employed by firms willing to take a chance and give a chance. Though there was no “jail time” completion of the program allowed re-entry into social norms and restoration of freedom. Thankfully, we were assisted through the advent of a drug court. Drug Courts now serve the justice department, offenders, and families in counties and states across the nation. A completion of a court program can result in expunging of a record of offense.

It has been said that the wheels of justice turn slowly, but grind exceedingly fine. We might restate it to read, the wheels of legislation turn slowly, but grind exceedingly. Fair Lady Eliza Doolittle states in the song Show Me, “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words. I get words all day through.”

Finally, in the last decade we have gotten action. Faces & Voices of Recovery has extensive experience working on criminal justice and substance use disorder policy issues at the federal level, including the Second Chance Act (SCA). Since 2009, more than one out of three Second Chance Act grant awards have gone directly to county governments which have received $95 million over the past nine years. These grants provide financial assistance for programs such as employment training, mentoring, substance use disorder and mental health treatment, and other family-based services to assist formerly incarcerated individuals as they reenter society. The Second Chance Act reauthorization was recently included in the compromise criminal justice reform bill titled the FIRST STEP Act. The reauthorization of the Second Chance Act also includes changes to address inadequacies in the program.

Additionally, Faces & Voices of Recovery worked hard through the grinding process to ensure the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) of 2016 was passed with patience and perseverance. Praise to advocacy!

Merlyn Karst

Recovery Advocate, Denver, Colorado

Founding Board Member, Faces & Voices of Recovery

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Phil Rutherford