COMMUNITY AWARD WINNER:
OBILE, ALABAMA, USA
In most communities, endemic social issues like the recidivism of formerly-incarcerated felons are addressed by disparate and distinct groups—both government and non-profit—most often ineffectually. Re-arrest rates for persons released from prison in the United States are unacceptably high. One-third are back in prison six months after release; two-thirds (67%) after three years. To tackle something as complicated as the rehabilitation and reintegration of the formerly incarcerated requires a unity of effort rarely envisioned—let alone accomplished—in most American cities.
In Mobile the effort began with Kenyen Brown, one of two United States Attorneys for the state of Alabama. Sensing that simply racking up convictions would not change the fact that most of the criminals he prosecuted were repeat offenders, he began to reach out to others who had a vested interest in getting at the root of this issue. The Mayor, the Chief of Police and Police Commissioner, local judges, and other key players in the judicial system--from probation officers to social workers--were all interested in building a better system. Prosecutors committed to helping develop a rehabilitative option as an alternative to prison. The police department agreed to explore the most effective ways of reducing crime. “Our mission is not to see how many people we can arrest and send to prison,” James Barber, the Mobile Chief of Police, explained. “Our mission is to help make the community safe.” Rather than wait for ex-felons to become repeat felons, they began to identify what was preventing this population from breaking long-standing habits and becoming contributing members of society.
One of the most important determining factors in the recidivism of ex-felons is their ability to secure a job. Without gainful employment, a return to theft or selling drugs is almost assured. But because potential employers tend not to want to hire ex-felons, finding a job is almost impossible. Juanida Pitts and Melinda Ricketts, two ex-felons who met each other in prison, knew this all too well. Seeing a need, they began the “Cut Above the Rest” program, a non-profit that trains ex-felons as heavy-machinery operators. This skill is in high demand—so the jobs pay well. “A program for ex-felons created by ex-felons,” Juanida liked to say. Kenyen became acquainted with Juanida and Melinda’s work and saw that adding non-profits and other organizations that could train ex-felons was a critical component of the new approach he envisioned. So he brought in business owners who could provide employment and mentoring as well as church pastors who could provide short term relief (food, clothing, etc.)..
They called this collaborative initiative the “Second Chance” program. In addition to connecting ex-felons to this network of resources, those involved also formed a community panel to mentor program participants in a very personal way. In weekly meetings, program participants receive guidance, take courses in parenting, are supported by others committed to changing course, and hold themselves accountable. The requirements for ongoing participation in the program are both high and exactingly strict. But participants rise to these expectations with remarkable results.
After just one year, Mobile saw a 400% reduction in narcotics crimes and a 42% decrease in other serious crimes. These results are not simply a function of the job training and mentoring, as important as these aspects of the program are. These results are better attributed to the fact that, often for the first time, people with what appears to be a socially unforgivable past are seen as people. “To help people like me receive a second chance at life…” says Floyd Jones, a Second Chance participant and graduate of A Cut Above the Rest, who was unable to complete his sentence because he was so overcome with emotion. “I’m 55 years old with just a seventh-grade education. To now receive a second chance at life, I feel like I’m 18 again. Life is just so new to me right now.” Chief Barber summed up their efforts well: “If we ever stop and try to see each other from the other person’s perspective, I believe we’ll see that we’re a lot more alike than we are different. And I believe we’ll see that myths will give way to facts, suspicion will give way to trust, and anger and hate will give way to love and respect.”