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Figgatt and Marotta: Devising programs to give incarcerated individuals a second chance

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Former inmate looks toward future, earning bachelor's degree from Washington University

Jim Brock, right, greets friend Kevin Hammerschmidt as Natasha Narayanan looks on before Washington University commencement on May 21, 2021. The men were enrolled in the Prison Education Project at University College while inmates at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific.

If every state in the U.S. were its own country, Missouri would rank 18th in the world for how many people it incarcerates per capita — higher than all countries with a population of at least 500,000 people, including Russia, China and Iran.

These high incarceration rates come even after years of Missouri steadily decreasing its prison population. Nationwide, it would take until 2085 — over six decades — to cut the U.S. prison population in half at the current rate.

With 128,000 people cycling through Missouri’s local jails each year and more than 20,000 people remaining incarcerated across Missouri’s state and federal prison system, we believe it’s time for Missouri to begin studying ways to reduce the number of people held in its correctional facilities and implement wraparound support services for people transitioning home. Without such supports, returning community members are at risk of death, homelessness, and winding up back in prison.

True reform requires active and ongoing policy change to reduce mass incarceration and increase investment in reentry programs to ensure individuals receive critical resources to flourish.

Formerly incarcerated people are nearly 10 times more likely to experience homelessness than the general public. This figure is unsurprising given that four out of five landlords use background checks to screen for applicants’ criminal history, leading to discrimination in housing against those with criminal records.

People with criminal records also experience discrimination when applying for jobs, with 90% of employers checking for a criminal history during the hiring process. An inability to secure employment negatively affects other aspects of an individual’s life, making it challenging for the person to afford housing, food, transportation, medical care and more.

Even the college admissions process can perpetuate discrimination against people with criminal records, with most institutions of higher education asking applicants about their criminal history. In Missouri, there are no protections in the college admissions process for applicants with criminal records, giving full discretion to both public and private institutions of higher learning in Missouri to reject applicants because of their criminal histories.

Combined with a lack of reentry support services, policies like these fuel a cycle of poverty and incarceration for many individuals, denying them of a second chance at leading a fulfilling life. Many probably never received a first chance to lead a secure, stable life full of opportunity.

Economic instability, job instability, housing insecurity, food insecurity, lack of access to quality and affordable health care are both the impetus for and consequence of someone’s engagement in criminalized behaviors, in large part due to policing and sentencing practices that disproportionately target and criminalize those in poverty. The collateral consequences of a criminal record reverberate throughout entire families and communities for generations and become lifelong stains that bar individuals from secure housing, stable employment and educational opportunities. It becomes a vicious cycle.

In order to promote a true second chance for incarcerated Missourians, we believe the state must advance a second-chance agenda that includes:

• Invest in economic opportunities for populations disproportionately harmed by past laws. Missouri leaders must prioritize the economic advancement of communities harmed under a past criminal legal system as laws change, especially concerning drug use, such as marijuana.

• Eliminate discrimination against those with criminal records. Advancing automated record-clearing legislation, also known as “clean slate” legislation, in Missouri would enable individuals to pursue the second chances they deserve without the burden of a criminal record limiting opportunities.

• Seek alternatives to incarceration. Missouri officials should expand alternatives to incarceration when possible, such as the pre-charge and post-plea diversion programs operated under St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner.

A second chance agenda would disrupt the cycle perpetuating poverty and incarceration for thousands. This proactive approach would build stronger, safer and healthier communities, unite families and give all individuals the chances they deserve.

Sarah Figgatt is pursuing a master’s degree in social work at Washington University’s Brown School. Phillip Marotta is an assistant professor at the Brown School.

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