This has been a year of great learning for me. Since wise learning necessarily means time spent reflecting on issues (theory) and acting on issues (practice), since I spent much more of my time over the last few years reflecting and theorizing, I made a commitment when we moved to Cincinnati that I would spend more time acting.
As the title suggests above, one of the places I’ve devoted some time to has been advocating for ex-offenders (what some would call ex-convicts or other various terms). It so happens that Cincinnati is much like any other community in how we handle ex-offenders, which makes the struggle here extremely transferable to other arenas. This is the process by which we handle ex-offenders:
1) They commit a crime and are jailed
2) They serve their time
3) They come back into mainstream society
4) They apply for jobs to support themselves and their families
5) They are rejected for these jobs (public and private) because they have had a felony conviction and won’t be hired
6) Given little to no options for meaningful employment, they are tempted to return to “easier,” illegal ways to support themselves, which often put them back in prison
So, as this seven-step process illustrates, our society, which you would think has a vested interest in ex-offenders being rehabilitated, actually promotes a massive disincentive for rehabilitation. This is a cancerous tumor in Cincinnati that often is not spoken of or paid attention to because it’s uncomfortable, unsavory, makes us shift in our seats and look the other way. After all, to truly provide the incentive for rehabilitation would require our time, our energy, and our extending chances to those who have made mistakes. And for various reasons, we don’t want to risk those things for the sake of our personal comfort. It’s a classic case of short-term selfish benefit at enormous long-term cost to our society.
So what can we do? How can we make the trek back to more healthy relationship with ex-offenders, to provide incentives for them to be productive members of society?
It is that question that a small number of folks asked not so long ago here in Cincinnati (specifically the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, the Amos Project, and now, more recently, the fledgling Cincinnati Faith and Justice, of which I most directly identify). About a year ago, the OJPC started stepping up pressure for the city to change its hiring policy, and targeted their action toward the city asking some simple questions like:
1) How old is the conviction and is it relevant to the job?
2) How serious was the offense?
3) What has this job applicant done to turn his or her life around since they were convicted?
About four months ago, the AMOS Project launched the Nehemiah Campaign to Rebuild Cincinnati focused primarily on this issue, which Cincinnati Faith and Justice linked up with, which led to my involvement in the campaign. The last two weeks have been a roller coaster of emotion for those involved in this, which I’ll address in my next post, but I wanted to lay out in this one some of where my learning-in-action has gone over the past year.