By Shane Sims
There are approximately 70 million Americans with criminal records – that is one in three Americans. That is 70 million family members, friends, neighbors, who face more than 44,000 legal barriers after paying their debts to society, then trying avail themselves of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Many of them simply become disillusioned and disenfranchised, leaving them with a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness.
When it comes to statistics, numbers tell stories. They are proof of what is, and clear indicators of what will be. That is why politicians rely upon them so heavily - or use them – depending upon their circumstances.
Regrettably, for many politicians and policy makers, they are nothing more than tools. So, when a politician comes along – especially arguably the most powerful on the Earth – and sees the human beings behind such dismal numbers, then actually does something about it, it is a breath of fresh air. I know because I am a part of that 70 million number.
When President Biden proclaimed April 2021 as Second Chance Month, I was elated. Not so much because I believe that it will yield any immediate benefits, but because it shines a light on the plight of millions of Americans struggling to make a go of life after making some sometimes profoundly serious, but human, mistakes. I pray that this is a step in the direction of making it a part of the national conversation. Considering the fact that these 44,000 + legal barriers are affecting nearly every family, or, at least, community, engaging this conversation is something that we all should make a priority.
As valuable as these numbers are, I do not need to see them to quantify this problem that we are facing as a nation. Because of my own experience and current line of work as a Certified Addiction Recovery Empowerment Specialist, I see daily the extraordinary number of men and women that are adversely affected by their criminal history, although it is just that – history. Each barrier hit seems to drain just a little more life from them.
When people become disillusioned, depression often follows. It has long been established that depression is not just an unwillingness to engage life, it is an absolute inability to. I often state, whether speaking with mothers of returning citizens or to officials who make or influence policy, that my success at reintegrating back into society and navigating the many legal barriers is not the norm. I had an extensive support network which most offenders do not. Without an extraordinary amount of support, the negative effect of each barrier encountered will continue to compound until an individual’s will to continue facing and dealing with them all but disappears. Imagine the effects of this happening to just 25% of the 70 million. That is 17,500,000 people withdrawing from normal life. If you cannot conceptualize the effects, then look no further than to the levels of homelessness, addiction, “help wanted” signs, and recidivism, to name just a few of the indicators. A large percentage of each category are individuals whose criminal histories have prevented them from obtaining jobs that pay living wages, and whose inability to vote makes them feel like helpless victims of an elite group of individuals that are completely out of touch with their day-to-day reality. Under such circumstances, it is quite hard to just “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”. Without government intervention and willingness to initiate or encourage “second chance” initiatives or address the conditions that often too easily deprives certain classes of individuals of their ‘first chance”, the results will continue to be devastating.
While President Biden’s declaration in and of itself will not remedy the problems faced by individuals with criminal histories, it does set the stage for exposing, focusing on, and, ultimately, addressing them. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Shane Sims was born and lives in Athens. In 1996 he was sentenced to life in prison for an armed robbery in which an accomplice fatally shot a store clerk. Before being paroled 20 years later he served time in Telfair, Coastal, and Jackson state prisons. Among other things, Sims currently is executive director of People Living in Recovery, serves on the board of The Athens Reentry Collaborative, is chairman of the nonprofit agency Feed My Sheep, and is chaplain for the Athens-Clarke County Police Department