Category Archives: class issues

Second chances: Michael Vick and the challenges for ex-offenders

It was heartening to hear of  President Barack Obama praising Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie for giving Michael Vick a second chance following  the quarterback’s release from prison. 

“He (Obama) said, ‘So many people who serve time never get a fair second chance,’ ” said Lurie, who did not indicate when the call occurred. “He said, ‘It’s never a level playing field for prisoners when they get out of jail.’ And he was happy that we did something on such a national stage that showed our faith in giving someone a second chance after such a major downfall.”

You can’t get better press than that.  Even allowing for the fact that Vick, as a gifted athlete, is a unique case, his comeback does demonstrate the possibility of redemption and the importance of letting individuals take a crack at starting over.  What would be nice now would be to see Vick play a broader role in helping other ex-offenders start anew. 

They’re going to need it.   Despite an apparently rosy holiday retail season, the jobs picture hasn’t improved and the indicators are not encouraging.   A recent study by Rutgers University, which followed unemployed workers for 15 months noted that only a quarter had found new jobs and most of those were for lower pay and benefits.   “The Shattered American Dream: Unemployed Workers lose Ground, Hope and Faith,” found that  despite optimistic projections by some economists, many see the changes in the job market as structural and long-term.  New York Times columnist Bob Herbert does a great job of explaining the disconnect here.

One can only hope our leaders wise up  and  take some action to spur real  job growth sooner rather than later — and that in the meantime,  enlightened employers with good stories to tell like Vick’s get the word out.   

Do you know any you’d like to share?

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Filed under class issues, companies hiring ex-offenders, employment ex-offenders, jobs ex-offenders, Michael Vick, second chances, starting over, Uncategorized

Convictions: Who feels the pain and for how long?

Once again, a shout out  to one of my favorite bloggers, Matt Kelley, who writes for the Criminal Justice blog at  Matt recently highlighted some new research that provides data on the lasting costs of incarceration, highlighting who’s most affected and why this increases the gap between the haves and have-nots.

The study,  Incarceration and Social Inequality ,  conducted by sociologists Bruce Western of Harvard and Becky Pettit of the University of Washington, appears in the MIT journal Daedalus.  In their research the authors found that the social inequality produced by mass incarceration was so enduring for 3 reasons: 

  1.  It’s invisible in that prisoners aren’t typically included in employment and other statistics, 
  2.  It’s cumulative in its impact,  and
  3. It affects not only adults but their children, spanning generations. 
Among their findings:
  •  Of men aged 20 to 34 — the largest chunk of the prison population incarceration rates have grown the most for the least educated populations.  In 1980, 10 percent of African Americans in this age range who hadn’t completed high school were incarcerated, today that rate is 37%.  Similarly, in 1980 less than 1 in 50 White dropouts were incarcerated, by 2008, that rate was had climbed to 1 in 8.
  •  The incarceration rate for black men born between 1975 to 1979  nearly quadrupled from the rate for those born twenty years earlier.  
  •  People who have been incarcerated and fall into the lowest income group, have the least mobility of anyone.
  •  The impact of conviction goes beyond the person sentenced to a prison term  to adversely affect their children.  How many kids  have a parent who is incarcerated?  Nearly 2 percent of white children, 3.5 % of Latino children and 11 % of African  children.  

This  dovetails with what legal scholar  Michelle Alexander talks about in her recent book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness.  Alexander’s argument, well- supported by research, is that the unprecedented rise in people being sent to prison since the 1970s is creating a permanent underclass.  Individuals end up being punished in perpetuity, she says,  as their records are often to deny them employment, housing and other opportunities that might help them rebuild their lives.


You can read the full report here.    





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Filed under class issues, criminal records, discrimination, employment ex-offenders, justice reform, prison reform, reentry, research, second chances

A problem too big to ignore: U.S as a land of “selective” opportunity

Class issues have been very much on my mind this week.  So you’ll have to forgive me if I carry on a bit here  about the yawning gap in the U.S between the haves and the  have-nots. 

I just finished watching the  HBO documentary, “Homeless,” about the families who live in the motels around Disneyland in Anaheim, California because they can’t afford a real home.  As a newspaper reporter  covering Disneyland in the early 1990s, I was well acquainted with  these seedy motels just footsteps from “The Happiest Place on Earth.”  But I had no idea the extent to which they’ve become the last resort for so many really young  kids and their parents.  The documentary, which was produced by Alexandra Pelosi, was heart-wrenching as it illuminated the lives of these children crammed in single rooms with their families and  playing in parking lots and alleyways rife with drug addiction and gang violence.  The kids even go to a special school, Hope School, that runs all year so that they can get regular meals and be kept off the streets.  Watching it, I kept thinking of  how I’d been less shocked to see poor kids in third world countries, than in a rich country like the U.S., where everyone is supposed to have a chance.

And yes, Ms. Pelosi is the daughter of the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.  But regardless of your politics, this program is eye-opening.   What was most jarring to me was that most of these people were working full-time if not overtime ( though often minimum wage jobs at places like Target, Wal-Mart and even nearby Disney), yet they still couldn’t afford to rent a house in Orange County.

The majority of people Pelosi interviewed were also white, which made me think of a great piece I read recently in the Wall Street Journal that argued how affirmative action had failed America because it’s not helping the folks who really need it.  It was written by Senator Jim Webb (D-VA), who has also gone out on a limb backing prison reform.  For my money, there are few legislators who have a better fix on the problems ailing the U.S. – or more courage in confronting them – than Webb.   He asserts that as affirmative action has been expanded to include all people of color and other protected groups, it has shortchanged the African-Americans it was designed to help.  And that’s not all.  As Webb writes:

Those who came to this country in recent decades from Asia, Latin America and Africa did not suffer discrimination from our government, and in fact have frequently been the beneficiaries of special government programs. The same cannot be said of many hard-working white Americans, including those whose roots in America go back more than 200 years.

The fact that Webb’s editorial has more than 1,000 commenters, many in support of what he says, suggests that a lot of us are seeing the disconnect.    In essence it’s not about race or ethnicity — it’s about economic and social disadvantage.  Americans who fall or are falling into the lower class are the ones most in need of assistance. 

This is also highlighted in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” which I recently picked up when I saw an 11-year-old boy reading it at the pool.  (I’m assuming for the chapter on what it takes to succeed in sports, since he’s typically carrying a football.)   In the book, Gladwell basically skewers the Horatio Alger myth of the self-made man, by illustrating many of the extraordinary advantages our up-by-their-bootstraps heros have actually had.   He also cites class in explaining why being a genius doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be a success, pointing out that there are certain things well-off parents teach their children about making their way that children from poorer families often  don’t know. 

Any way you look at it, it’s a tough problem.  Readers, what are your thoughts?

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Filed under class issues, homelessness, jobs, UVA Lacrosse, wages

Are ex-offenders the new “untouchables”?

“I had been wrong about our criminal justice system. It’s not just another institution in our society infected by racial bias, but a different beast entirely. It functions today as a caste system. It functions to lock poor people of color in a permanent second class status for life, much like Jim Crow once did.”


I heard this driving home from my class at the Fairfax Adult Detention Center today, and had to resist the urge to yell “yes,” to the radio.  The speaker was Michelle Alexander, a legal scholar, attorney and former Supreme Court clerk.  She was being interviewed on NPR’s Tell Me More program about her new book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

What jumped out at me was her reference to caste.  We here in America like to think of ourselves as living in the land of equal opportunity, I know.  But this particular term  is one that’s come up a lot in my discussions about the offenders and the criminal justice system, lately.  An offender turned reentry advocate I talked to a whle back put it even more bluntly:

“I think we as humans need an untouchable class.  Before it was race that held people down, now it’s that your branded and ostracized because you’re an ex-offender.”

Alexander argues that blacks are still disproportionately represented in this new lower caste, hence the link  to notorious Jim Crow laws.  She backs up her assertions with plenty of statistics, including:

  • The War on Drugs, which caused the prison explosion has been primarily waged in poor neighborhoods of color. Yes, drugs are there, she says, but they’re also in white suburban neighborhoods, as well.  But despite this, in some states 80 to 90 percent of drug offenders sent to prison are African Americans.
  • If we were to go back to the rates of incarceration we had in the 1970s, we would have to release four out of five people who are in prison today.

Author Michelle Alexander

I would agree with Alexander to a point.  Certainly more African Americans are affected by the criminal justice system.  But the caste system she’s referring to also impacts a substantial number of low income, under-educated whites.  The groups I teach in Northern Virginia have never had an African American majority.  But it’s a good bet that the most of these students, whatever their race, are usually from a lower rung on the class ladder, which guarantees them poorer legal representation and less access to some of the “breaks” often afforded higher class lawbreakers.

That said, I think Alexander and the people I’ve spoken to are right when they say that felons are the new untouchables.  As Alexander points out, offenders are:

“…trapped in a permanent second class status in which you may be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits. All the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind…..are suddenly legal again once you’ve been branded a felon.”

Note:  Alexander and others who advocate for criminal justice reform aren’t saying that those who break the law don’t deserve to be punished.  But it’s a question of scale.  Right now having a criminal record punishes all offenders in perpetuity, often regardless of the circumstances of the individual crime.   Employers who routinely screen out anyone with a record, for example, effectively treat a felony as a scarlet letter.

Alexander thinks nothing short of a social movement will change this situation.  In ex-offender forums I often hear people talking about getting groups together and going to Washington, D.C., but so far there’s been no significant organized action.

How about you?  Do you think offenders are the new lower caste?  If so, what do you think it will take to change this?


Filed under class issues, companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, discrimination, employment assistance ex-offenders, reentry, second chances

No place to go – the homeless epidemic among ex-offenders

A woman in my class was talking recently about how happy she would be to reunite with her two-year-old upon her release.   There was only one problem:  in addition to getting a job and  paying her court costs, restitution and legal fees, she needed to  find a place to live.  In the short-term, she said, matter of factly, they could go to a shelter, no problem. She’d done it before.   But finding something more permanent would be a challenge.

Sadly, she’s far from alone.  A handful of her classmates  also have no permanent residence.  I know this because of the blank stares I get as they shake their heads and tell me they have no address to put on the resumes we’re writing for them.  That’s okay, is my standard response, since the resumes can be put into the  computer system without one at OAR, the re-entry organization where I volunteer.  After their release when they have an address they can add it in.

Too often this never happens.   According to data over at the National Reentry Resource Center:

  • More than 10 percent of those entering prisons and jails are homeless in the months before their incarceration. For those with mental illness, the rates are even higher — about 20 percent. Released prisoners with a history of shelter use were almost five times as likely to have a post-release shelter stay.

It’s a fair  assumption that someone who enters prison without a permanent address often exits it that way. Sometimes family will step in to help out, but that’s more the exception.     Each year close to 700,000 people are released from state and federal prisons.  Another 9 million are released from jails.    Ten percent of that would be as many as 970,000 individuals potentially coming out with no place to go.  

 It’s a frightening thought — because everyone knows how difficult it can be to find work when you don’t have an address.  Without work, it’s impossible to pay for a place to live.  Add to that the fact that many landlords won’t rent to ex-offenders and you get a better sense for why reentry can be a revolving door right back into custody for as many as two-thirds of all offenders.    A study by the Vera Institute for Justice, for example, found that people released from prison and jails to parole who went to homeless shelters in New York, were seven times more likely to abscond within the first month than those who had some type of housing, putting their freedom and their futures in jeopardy.

 That’s why I was heartened to see that Council of State Governments Justice Center has released a new publication that addresses the critical issue of finding affordable housing for the newly released ex-offenders.   You can read and download a copy of  Reentry Housing Options: The Policymakers Guide, here.

I’d also be interested in hearing how others  have successfully managed the housing issue.  Two years ago OAR launched the Beacon Program, which provides 18-24 months of housing, plus employment/career training and educational resources  for a handful newly released felons as they begin to rebuild their lives. 

 How about you, what’s worked in your area?  Or if you’re a former offender what’s worked for you?


Filed under class issues, economy, homelessness, hope for ex-offenders, reentry, reentry resources, starting over, unemployment

Let’s get rid of this ridiculous tax on the poor…

Just finished belatedly reading this NPR series on how so many jail inmates are in there because they can’t afford bail.  Appalling story about how such men and women typically end up getting stiffer sentences in part because they’re in jail so can’t do anything positive like take courses or show evidence of turning their lives around to impact their sentences.

 More than a half-million inmates are sitting in America’s jails — not because they’re dangerous or a threat to society or because a judge thinks they will run. It’s not even because they are guilty; they haven’t been tried yet.

I have had a number students who have lost any stability they’ve had while languishing in jail — jobs, places of residence, etc. Their lives are destroyed by the arrest even before a trial is completed.  What’s worse, according to this article is that the cost of housing all these people is $9 billion a year.

I don’t think it’s being soft to suggest that people with petty or non-violent crimes and nowhere to go be spared the indignity of continued custody and perhaps a more punishing sentence because they don’t have the financial means that wealthier people might.  Not to mention, it’s stupid to spend all that money to incarcerate someone who might not even be convicted.  This is a really important story and it will be interesting to see if it spurs the change it should.

Readers, what do you think?

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Filed under bail, class issues, jobs ex-offenders, sentencing alternatives