The Language of Second Chances

Photo of handsNo one deserves to be labeled for the rest of their lives for an act they did at their lowest or toughest moment, I’ve heard many say recently when talking about reentry. Colleagues in the criminal justice system have been talking about reentry initiatives for nearly two decades, and yet our successes are hit and miss. We still have a long way to go to overcome the collateral consequences that follow too many formerly incarcerated individuals when they return home.

As I was reflecting this month on why our progress with reentry has been tepid, I heard Oprah talk about the nobility of having strong beliefs, and how real power comes from backing those beliefs with actions. I think our communities are slow (and scared) to take action when it comes to giving second chances to individuals who have touched the criminal justice system. Even after all these years of reentry efforts, a criminal record raises enormous and unnecessary legal and societal barriers to individuals who have paid their debt to society, limiting their access to education, jobs, housing, and more. I see it in the community I grew up in, and it’s not because the community is unkind or unwilling to help. It’s just that people don’t understand, having few experiences to relate to circumstances that lead to criminal behavior, which in turn makes them unwilling to be the landlord or employer or even friend to someone who has been through the justice system. I might be in their shoes, too, if I’d never branched out, traveling abroad and having a few tough moments of my own.

Even so, we can’t discount all the good work that has been done under reentry and the Second Chance Act.  Those of us working in this space have been very successful with like-minded allies, and now the challenge is motivating unlikely allies to give second chances. A place we can all start to make a difference is to think about our language choices, because language matters. I’ve started using returning citizens to talk about clients coming home from being incarcerated. Many of my friends, most not in the justice field, have no idea what I’m talking about initially. But when I ask them what phrases like “ex-con” make them think and feel, they start to get it. Words can conjure up an image of someone who is a danger to society and instill a sense that individual is not worthy of trust or respect or being treated well. This is why I try to use language that recognizes returning status without stigmatizing the person for having been incarcerated.

So, I encourage you this Second Chance Month to help me change the language we use to talk about our formerly incarcerated brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, children, friends, and neighbors. But if you want to do more, here are three other actions you can take to promote giving second chances all year long:

  • Listen to others without judgment and seek to understand, starting in a neutral place. (Franklin Covey gets credit for part of this one!)
  • Ban the Box in the hiring forms of your organization, your friends’ organizations, and through state legislation, counties, and cities. As research shows, having to check that box is a huge obstacle to getting a job interview.  There’s time for background checks, if appropriate, after getting to know a candidate.
  • A good friend of mine opened a community court conference years ago by introducing love as a necessary part of social change. It stuck with me and seems especially important now—a time when we seem divided as a nation based largely on our skin color, religion, ethnicity, and politics.

This month, there will be an intense focus on reentry and what that means. Let’s all try to carry that spirit throughout the rest of the year.

Kim Ball is the director of the Justice Programs Office.