In President Ronald Reagan’s farewell address, he described America as “God-blessed and teeming with people of all kinds,” and called it a shining city on a hill. He understood the goodness found in most Americans.
My life of service from being a local pastor, to the U.S. Air Force, a practicing attorney and to the halls of Congress has led me to find Reagan’s words to also be a vision and value for Americans no matter their current lot in life. For many, the possibility of a second chance may seem out of reach, but as Americans we should never withhold hope from those who seek it.
Today, more than 2 million individuals live within the walls of our prisons across America, with more than 100,000 behind bars in Georgia and 236,000 booked annually into our local jails. These numbers have been on a steady rise since the early 1990s when federal and state policies took a harsh turn towards locking people away with lengthy sentences.
Credit: Ben Gray
Credit: Ben Gray
These expanding walls were meant to protect, but we have lost sight of their purpose to also redirect. Now, three decades later, we find ourselves failing at both. Where we could create doors of opportunity and build a will in people to walk through them, our system instead is disregarding these people when their punishment has ended.
A few years ago, I worked on a case for a young man who was heading down a dangerous path with his choices and could have been facing many years behind bars. However, after working with the prosecutor, we were able to structure a penalty that paid his debt to society but also invested in his future by giving him hope as he completed his sentence.
We were able to work within the system to instead put him in a community supervised program and counseling where he was required to keep a job and stay drug free. This encounter with the law, and the intentional structuring of his punishment allowed him to sow the seeds for a better life and it worked!
Ten years later, he has maintained a stable job and started a family with his wife. He is a productive taxpaying citizen and an active contributor to his community.
I could tell numerous similar stories like this. But alongside these success stories are many more who go without an advocate, without an attorney and without a network of resources to create constructive doors of hope and second chances.
This is most evident in our country’s climbing recidivism rates, a sign that our current system is not doing its job of protecting our citizens and allowing those who have been sentenced to have a plan to eventually rejoin society. We must remember that 95% of those jailed at all levels will eventually come home.
During my eight years in Congress, I dedicated myself to seeking solutions for criminal justice reform – and I am still committed to that work today. I am proud to have led the bipartisan passage of The First Step Act, a law that instructs the prison system to create pathways of hope for those with the will to grab hold.
But as a country, we can’t stop here. As I enter my new chapter in my life, my pursuit is to continue to make America safe both through strong law enforcement and a modernized criminal justice system.
We can accomplish both by passing clean slate laws, like we see in Utah and Michigan, and equipping those approaching release and parole with skills training, housing placement and a packet of government documentations, like we have seen done in Oklahoma. Creating pathways for education and full-time employment has proven to reduce recidivism.
I believe America’s best days are yet to come when we can find and elevate the best parts of us. As Second Chance month comes to an end, may we apply this same spirit of hope for our fellow American right here at home in our criminal justice system.
Doug Collins is a Republican former U.S. Congressman and U.S. Senate candidate. Based in North Georgia, he is now a lawyer in private practice.
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