Prison Fellowship estimates that 65 million Americans have a criminal record—roughly one in four adults. Despite this prevalence, many of these individuals, whether they served prison time for their offenses or not, face legal restrictions and social stigmas that create barriers to employment, education, and housing. These barriers to successful re-entry constitute what Prison Fellowship deems the “second prison”—and it’s why they’ve designated this April the first-ever Second Chance Month. This effort, recognized earlier this week by the U.S. Senate, brings together a diverse group of organizations, including the NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union, the Charles Koch Institute, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, to show their support for reform. As Second Chance Month comes to an end, we reflect on the push for reform and why addressing the struggles of former offenders is a matter of human dignity.
One of the biggest impacts of the lack of opportunity for former offenders is that it reinforces a cycle of crime. At an event highlighting the research of Harvard professor Bruce Western last fall, Charles Koch Institute senior research fellow Vikrant Reddy summed up the importance of second chances when he remarked: “A lot of us work on keeping individuals out of prison. That said, some are going to go to prison. At that point, we all have an interest—moral interest, public safety interest—to figure out how to prevent them from recidivism.”
Many former offenders who struggle to find stable employment after release see a return to a life of crime as their only viable option, contributing to the 40 percent national recidivism rate. One particularly egregious legal barrier to escaping the “second prison” is the pervasiveness of occupational licensing regulations, which all but guarantee an uphill battle for those looking for work.
The average state license for low- and moderate-income professions requires nine months of education and training, an exam, and a fee of $209. While occupational licensing laws may not have been written with the intent of punishing those with criminal records, they certainly have that effect.
“After years behind bars, [former offenders] don’t have the savings needed to enroll in training programs, much less pay licensing fees,” Arizona State University’s Steve Slivinski explains.
As a result, there’s a correlation between occupational licensing requirements and recidivism. States with the most licensing regulations saw an average 9-percent increase in recidivism from 1997 to 2007. That cycle of recidivism proves costly for state and federal budgets—corrections spending makes up more than 20 percent of the Department of Justice’s budget and represents the third-largest category of spending for most states.
Thankfully, organizations like Prison Fellowship are helping change the way we think about former offenders through initiatives like Second Chance Month and by providing mentorship and life-skills training to prisoners preparing for release. If the criminal justice system is to encourage rehabilitation (and it should), then recognizing the collateral consequences of imprisonment is a necessary part of the conversation. Combating recidivism is a difficult task, but it begins with truly affording those re-entering society a second chance.