Empowering Former Inmates: Key Takeaways from Second Chance Month Discussion

From The Brennan Center:

In April, Brennan Center friends and colleagues gathered at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco to discuss ways to provide the formerly incarcerated with opportunities for a fresh start. This discussion was prompted by the publication of the book Excessive Punishment: How the Justice System Creates Mass Incarceration, a collection of essays exploring the harms of, and potential solutions for, America’s punitive approach to crime and justice. The authors — including incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people — are scholars, practitioners, activists, and writers.

The event was held during Second Chance Month. It opened with a video featuring Billie Edison, an alumna of The Last Mile, a nonprofit organization that provides education and technical training to incarcerated individuals for careers in technology after their release. The program has over 1,200 participants from 14 facilities across seven states. The video follows Edison through her difficult choice to stay incarcerated at Indiana Women’s Prison for an additional year so she could complete The Last Mile’s Web Development Program, as well as the challenges she faced in completing it. Upon returning home, Edison struggled finding employment like many returned citizens who have a record. Through TLM’s partnerships, and her continued hard work, she secured employment in the IT department of the Indiana Pacers and reconnected with her family.

The book’s editor, Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, reflected on the collection’s intention to educate the public on the overly punitive nature of America’s criminal justice system. To illustrate her point, she cited the nation’s lengthy sentences, such as life without parole, the cycle of criminal justice debt, and the more than 40,000 laws, rules, and regulations that impact people with convictions. Eisen stressed the lack of proportionality created by barriers to reentry for those released from prison.

Michael Mendoza, former director of Advocacy at the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, provided a firsthand perspective on the obstacles commonly faced because of incarceration. He described reckoning with receiving a life sentence as a 16-year-old. “It was really hopeless. I felt as if the whole entire world had given up on me,” he said. Mendoza emphasized the toll taken by the fear and conflict that prison environments can foster. He also shared a proud moment: when he earned his associate degree while incarcerated.

Ken Oliver, executive director at Checkr Foundation, also spoke about his experience with incarceration, as well as the inconsistency of the justice system. He explained how he was sentenced to 52 years in prison for “joyriding” — which usually carries a sentence of 30 days — because of three-strikes laws in California, which add significantly higher penalties for people with two previous convictions. The trial judge initially gave him five minutes to respond to a plea bargain offer of 14 years instead of facing a higher potential penalty at trial.

“I was in my mid-20s, and I had three young, small children. The prospect of serving 14 years seemed alarming to me,” he said. Not able to make such an important decision so quickly, he exceeded the five minutes. However, he eventually returned to the judge ready to accept the plea bargain. The judge said the offer was off the table but allowed Oliver to plead guilty with no guarantee of leniency.

“And so, I did, and he gave me 52 years to life,” Oliver recalled.

Oliver also discussed winning a civil rights lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which he brought after the department relegated him to indefinite solitary confinement because he had a book authored by a Black Panther. Additionally, Oliver highlighted his critical work at Checkr.org, where he oversees the organization’s corporate social responsibility work focused on providing fair hiring and employment to justice-impacted men and women across the country. Checkr knows how difficult it is for formerly incarcerated individuals to succeed upon reentry to society without employment opportunities. Thus, it advocates for fair chance hiring, a practice that bolsters businesses and the broader economy by incorporating an underutilized portion of the workforce.

Kevin McCracken, executive director at The Last Mile, discussed the organization’s work to provide educational and skill-building opportunities to incarcerated people and to uniquely expand its support into the reentry space with its alumni success team. He emphasized that the failure of the prison system to care for and prepare people for release is a critical human rights issue, with strong support for reform across partisan lines. He also discussed his own proximity to the work — how his struggle with addiction led him to a choice between treatment and incarceration and how his gratitude for that choice has shaped his advocacy for justice reform and fair chance employment. He shared, “One thing that hasn’t been touched on is the billions of dollars of waste because we’re missing people from our communities. I’m not just talking about tax dollars, I’m talking about giving people sustainable employment that they’re putting back into their communities.” He went on to discuss how fair chance employment is a critical component for reentry success and reducing recidivism.

LaDoris Cordell, retired judge of the Superior Court of California, highlighted the influence that trial court judges have on punishment. Eisen and Cordell discussed the book’s coverage of the trial penalty, which is the risk associated with declining a plea bargain and facing a longer sentence at trial, and how these penalties serve as an additional retribution for people who are accused of crimes. Cordell also invited conversation about recent political inclinations toward “tough on crime” attitudes, to which Oliver pointed out that investing in people rather than incarceration has a much better return.

The conversation closed with a question about one thing the panelists would change about the system. Mendoza highlighted extreme sentences and tendencies toward isolation. Oliver offered a paradigmatic shift from retribution to transformation, while Eisen proposed significantly shrinking the system. McCracken argued for the elimination of money from the system. Overall, the conversation was rich with avenues for positive change and reform, fitting for an event held in celebration of Second Chance Month.