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Recently, the Georgia Supreme Court intervened in the case of Genarlow Wilson, a twenty-one year old Georgia honor student who was sentenced to eleven years in prison—even though he didn’t even commit a felony. The court recognized that the case was outrageous, deemed Wilson’s punishment unconstitutional, and released him. As we celebrate this young man’s freedom, we must also to rededicate ourselves to the task of correcting the inequities in our criminal justice system that led to his ordeal.
Like Hurricane Katrina did with poverty, the case of Genarlow Wilson — much like that of the Jena 6 — exposed the glaring inequities in our justice system. They reminded us of the fact that we still have a system that locks away too many young, first-time, non-violent offenders for the better part of their lives. It reminds us that we have certain sentences that are based less on the kind of crime you commit than on what you look like and where you come from.
In America, nearly a third of African-American men will enter state or federal prison during their lives. Too many will be lost in the criminal justice system and end up in prison, poverty, and unemployment. In many cases, they will fail to become fully rehabilitated, and go on to commit more crimes.
There is no question that breaking the law should have consequences. And it’s true that we have to do more as parents to teach our children that violence is always wrong. But justice must be fair, and punishment must fit the crime.
And if convicted offenders are not given the tools they need to become constructive members of our communities after they serve their time, we will all suffer the consequences.
Every day in this country, approximately 1,800 people are released from prisons and nearly two-thirds of them return to jail within three years. Almost half of those released from prison lack a high school diploma or GED. Only one third of inmates receive vocational training or work experience designed to improve their ability to obtain employment once released. Even fewer receive counseling and placement services after their release. As we know that in today’s economy, without a high school diploma, supporting a family is almost impossible. And with a criminal record instead of an education, the prospects for success are next to none.
This has to stop. The costs of crimes are high. But failing to break this cycle costs us even more.
We must create a pathway for people coming out of jail to get the jobs, skills, and education they need to leave a life of crime. That means supporting effective training and mentoring programs to help people transition into jobs. That means reevaluating the laws against hiring people with a criminal record so that we don’t foreclose legal and effective ways out of poverty and crime. That also means giving former prisoners parenting skills so they can give their children the sense of hope and opportunity that so many of them were denied.
That’s why I co-sponsored the Second Chance Act, which would support faith and community based organizations working with state and local authorities to give former prisoners a second chance at a meaningful life. The Second Chance Act makes funding available for transitional jobs programs and housing, for support health services, and educational needs. I’m working to build support for this legislation and will fight to get it passed.
Thurgood Marshall said: “None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody—a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns—bent down and helped us pick up our boots.” As we fulfill Marshall’s legacy and strive to right the injustices suffered by Genarlow Wilson and the Jena 6, let’s bend down and help every kid pick up his or her boots for a second chance.