We are told in Isaiah to remember not former things, nor to consider the things of old. And yet, thanks to historical legacies of injustice, we have an inhumane system of return for convicted Americans that burdens too many families.
Second-chance employment, workforce development and community re-integration sit at the heart of many of our current conversations: public safety, healthy neighborhoods and social equality. All these issues are impacted by how well we reintegrate returning citizens into society.
That is why we are working together with stakeholders on immediate steps that can be taken in Tampa to improve this process.
Every year, about three-quarters of a million Americans are released from state and federal prison. For all of us, this is an important moment — one of hope for a better life and a safer community.
Sadly, two-thirds of these Americans will be rearrested within three years of their release. They are nearly five times more likely to experience unemployment, and 10 times more likely to face homelessness. Under no analysis can these numbers be considered anything but a failure. After all, the people they represent aren’t simply statistics. These are moms and dads, aunts and uncles, sons and daughters. These are our neighbors, friends and colleagues. And yet, we continue on the same path. We all deserve better.
We have been working with various organizations — including the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the Tampa Jewish Community Centers and Federation, the Greater Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce, Abe Brown Ministries and others — to create a re-entry program for both our local government and community stakeholders. This means a program involving not only the public sector, but the heart of our communities: our families, businesses and houses of worship.
Our program has four legs that support a stool of safer communities, stronger businesses and a better chance at community reintegration for returning citizens and families:
First, we should use the contracting process to encourage contractors to “ban the box” and to hire returning citizens. “Ban the box” means that employers don’t ask about an applicant’s criminal record until later in the application process, giving returning citizens a chance to show their qualifications. Those contractors who meet this threshold in their employment practices should be given extra points in the contracting process.
Second, we should have Tampa and Hillsborough County partner on a formal apprenticeship program for returning citizens. With a modest proportionate investment from both entities, we could begin this process and partner with organizations to give returning citizens and their families a pathway to lifelong skills.
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Third, we are working with our local Chambers of Commerce on a commitment from their members to hire an agreed number of returning citizens.
And lastly, we know that reentry programs are not only about feeding the stomach, but healing the soul and providing hope. Herein, our houses of worship are critical. There is no greater ally in this movement to give a voice to the voiceless, welcome the marginalized and restore the forgiven. Therefore, we look forward to building on the work of our houses of worship by supporting the development of returning citizen ministries.
All of these unite for a central organizing principle: the vital importance of changing the narrative and personal bias that many of us have about returning citizens. This is a narrative and bias that we all have to overcome. People with convictions are like anyone else: studies show people with convictions get promotions and exhibit loyalty at the same rate as people without convictions.
In addition, people who find work post-conviction are nearly three times less likely to re-offend than those who are not employed. This should give us hope. Instead of a punitive and biased returning citizen system that marginalizes people, we can create something built on our common humanity—one person, place of worship, and government policy at a time.
These and other ideas acknowledge that a successful transition for a returning citizen is about more than not being rearrested. A successful transition means a productive job. It means returning to one’s family, having dignity, being a provider and a role model. It means having a place at society’s table. And it means believing that you are a stakeholder.
This has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with our common morality, living up to the tenants of our faith, and working together, a step at a time, to confront the most hurtful parts of our history with the hope of a better future.
By working together, at the local level, we can help ensure that the Tampa Bay region is a community of second chances.
Luis Viera represents District 7 on the Tampa City Council, and Neil Volz is the deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.