During a worldwide pandemic that’s overwhelming our healthcare system and triggering unprecedented layoffs, it’s no surprise that many of us have forgotten that April is Second Chance Month.
If it were another time, I would be reflecting on my own journey over the past six years from prison to Senior Policy Analyst and Adjunct Professor. I would be celebrating Maggie Luna, TCJC’s Peer Policy Fellow who has overcome every obstacle to shine as a leader transforming our justice system. I think of what this time must be like for Reggie Smith, who went from spending much of his adult life behind bars to earning his master’s degree in social work and becoming one of the foremost experts in certified peer support.
In the past six years, I have met some of the smartest, most accomplished, most talented leaders across the country, all of whom are contributing in their states and communities in profound ways – and all of whom are where they are right now because of the second chances they created for themselves.
Today, most of us are spending nearly all of our time responding to COVID-19. The threat to incarcerated people, many who are elderly or medically vulnerable, occupies every space in our hearts and drives us to action. This moment creates clarity like no other in our lifetime. With so many people at risk, we must ask – again – how we became a country that locks up more than two million people, and how we can possibly allow this to continue.
We are already seeing deaths inside of federal prisons, and we will shed many tears before this crisis is over. When the tsunami recedes, city, county, state, and federal budgets will experience significant deficits. We will have to decide where our priorities lie – and the steps we can take to achieve true community health and safety – and people who have been impacted by mass incarceration will be there to demand an end to this hateful era. This will be a second chance for all of us.
In the days before our lives were unmoored by the current crisis, I had intended to mark Second Chance Month by completing our implementation guides for House Bill 1342, which went into effect this past September. The bill is intended to open more opportunities for people with criminal records seeking careers in licensed professions. One of the proudest moments of my time at TCJC was working on this bill and watching it pass the Texas Legislature unanimously.
It occurs to me that there is no better time to release these guides. A criminal history should never stand in the way of people creating opportunities for themselves, especially when we desperately need healthcare professionals and other skilled workers to help us through this crisis. Many people with past convictions don’t even know that they’re currently eligible for occupational licenses. I will know that HB 1342 was worth all the time and effort when people impacted by mass incarceration shake off this current crisis and pursue their dreams.
Now, it’s time to get back to work advocating for the rapid release of people from county jails and prisons. Let’s not stop creating opportunities for people as they return home.