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Criminal Justice: A new option for felons seeking redemption

Early mentoring — and a job prospect — can help offenders re-enter society.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Star Tribune on February 24, 2020.  [Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press.]

When well-educated and often well-heeled political players, under investigation for one reason or another, are cleared of possible criminal charges (or released from prison if they’ve already been there) chances are pretty good they will find ways of earning a decent living again.

If they’re attorneys and haven’t been disbarred, they can practice law. If they have been disbarred, or if they are not lawyers to begin with, it’s easy to see them teaming up with old friends and colleagues in various remunerative ways. Or they might become regular “analysts” on Fox, CNN or MSNBC, financially leveraging their newly enhanced name recognition.

But whatever the success or disappointment of their rehabilitative route, neither they nor their families are likely to go hungry or bereft of a roof over their heads. The same assurance, however, cannot be assumed for great numbers of un-famous, unconnected and undereducated men who emerge from behind bars every day. Which leads to the perpetual problem: How to more effectively help former inmates move forward, not back?

This is not to suggest serious efforts aren’t underway, as some bring real benefit. It is to say that one potentially fruitful approach, which has not been tried anywhere in the United States, has kicked off in Minnesota: A program in which business leaders work one-on-one with offenders for a year or more while they’re still incarcerated, with the expectation that, if all goes right, the companies represented by those business leaders will eventually hire those same offenders upon their release. It may be hard to believe, but the Redemption Project is the only re-entry program in the nation in which business officials assist inmates while they’re still in prison. Reinforcing this high-level mentoring is another critical component: an educational program, grounded not in instructional gruel, but in the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. This is serious work.

The Redemption Project, based in Bloomington, is led by co-founder Tim Owens, a former banker (and longtime friend of mine) who spent 14 months at a federal prison in 2016-17.

“I entered prison,” he has written, “with biases and preconceived notions only to find that many of my perceptions were wrong. I expected to find hardened criminals lacking compassion and hope, interested only in their personal well-being. To be sure, such individuals exist within prison walls. I found, however, there are many incarcerated individuals who yearn to put past mistakes behind them. They are seeking redemption to become reliable, contributing members of their communities.”

Before his incarceration, Owens certainly wasn’t blind to many of the obstacles felons face as they seek to re-enter society, but his time in prison opened his eyes further. Also accentuated was his belief that the “road to redemption” as he calls it, must be paved in the “dignity and self-worth of working hard each day and earning a sustainable living wage.” The importance of holding a solid job, in other words.

Congress passed and the president signed bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation in 2018. This was good news for a variety of reasons, one of which is that it’s a sign that both parties have come to better grasp what another friend said, starkly, during an American Experiment panel discussion on “Redemption, Forgiveness, and Public Safety” in 2012.

“Unfortunately,” Dan Cain noted, “when we talk about redemption, when we talk about forgiveness, a lot of people interpret it as some kind of ‘hug-a-thug.’ The fact of the matter is it’s a public safety issue. Giving people access to a level playing field is not something we do because we want to be nice to them. It’s something we do because the likelihood of reoffending diminishes significantly.”

Redemption and forgiveness, of course, do have something to do with being nice — in the same way that giving people a chance to re-earn nothing less than their human dignity is “nice.” I trust that Cain, who has lived an exemplary and generous life after being in prison himself as a young man, would agree.

The Redemption Project, via its “Minnesota First Step Business Coalition,” is bringing thriving companies together to provide former felons with meaningful — not miserly — employment, which in turn will lead to reduced recidivism, reunited families and reduced taxpayer costs. Not least, the Redemption Project also will provide a new source of untapped talent, a critical contribution given current and projected labor shortages in many fields. This last benefit is of surging economic importance in every corner of Minnesota.

Mitch Pearlstein is a director of the Redemption Project (www.redemptionproject.org). He is also founder and president emeritus of Center of the American Experiment.

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