April Is Second Chance Month

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Toni Johnson

Despite the challenges some may face upon reentering society, a beacon of light spreads positivity through her voting initiatives

Since 2017, April is recognized nationally as Second Chance Month. A time where we reaffirm the importance of helping individuals who were formerly incarcerated reenter society successfully. 

In a statement released by President Joe Biden on March 29th, he shared his thoughts on how imperative it is that our justice system provides meaningful opportunities for redemption and rehabilitation. “America was founded on the promise of new beginnings,” said Biden. “During Second Chance Month, we recommit to building a criminal justice system that lives up to those ideals so that people returning to their communities from jail or prison have a fair shot at the American Dream.”

According to studies made by the White House, over 70 million people in this country have a criminal record and nearly 650,000 people are released from State and Federal prisons nationwide each year. Because of this unfavorable reality, many Americans have limited access to vital resources and next to nothing following their release, including access to adequate healthcare, safe housing, a good education as importantly a steady source of income. 

Some believe Mississippi does not have the proper resources to properly assist with a successful reentry. Depriving “justice impacted individuals” from the basic necessities not only increases the likelihood of them committing the same or similar offenses but does the state a major disservice. Forcing them back into impoverished situations breeding negative thoughts and actions. 

None of us are perfect but it does beg the question, is perception reality? Or are the stigmas associated with having a criminal record more about the state’s mishandling of those individuals upon release than the individuals themselves. The beautiful thing about our country is that it is understood that once you make a mistake, admit it, pay for it, you are free to start again with a clean slate. 

Fitting that Second Chance Month is in the month of April. After all, April is the start of spring, where a rebirth can happen. 

The reality of the situation is that despite the alleged growing popularity of giving judicially involved people a second chance, recent recidivism rates show that out of 100 people who are released from prison, about 66 of them went back to prison within three years. What could be the cause of this?

There are many reasons for the lack of improvement. Most glaring, it’s very difficult for most to find decent employment after returning to civilization. The likelihood of ex-offenders returning to prison skyrockets if they cannot legally provide for themselves. Not to mention the permanent stain of having your transgressions remain on the internet in perpetuity – a huge road block in the hiring process.

Our local government could assist with this issue in a few ways. First, require people who have nonviolent crimes expunged from the internet after a certain period of time. Secondly, give tax credits to employers who hire the formerly incarcerated. Lastly, an innovative thought. Help ex-offenders start their own businesses. Business owners who have made it out of the prison system are more likely to hire former inmates, thus putting a dent in the vicious cycle of those individuals returning to a life of crime.   

Harping on Mississippi’s lows never improves things, instead let’s take a look at a former election commissioner who is taking the bull by the horns when it comes to reshaping the stigma around justice impacted individuals.  

Toni Johnson, Executive Director of We Must Vote, is a lifelong Jacksonian with a passion for advocating for voting rights and election reform. Established in 2022, We Must Vote is an organization poised to spearhead efforts in transforming civic engagement, advocacy, and policy. Driven by her own personal experiences in a highly publicized fraud case. Johnson, as a justice affected woman of color in Mississippi, aims to destigmatize the notions that ex-offenders aren’t capable of becoming productive members of their communities while also being a passionate voice for the disenfranchised. 

“Everybody on the inside isn’t guilty. Everybody on the outside isn’t innocent,” exclaimed Johnson. Continuing to say, “It’s like a double barrier in this system. It is important for the community to know who you are voting for and why. And how it ultimately shapes what your life looks like.” 

With over 12 years of experience of campaign consulting, advocacy, and non-profit work, Johnson continues to be at the forefront of change through her organization We Must Vote. “I created We Must Vote because we got to! The work I was already doing, I’m still doing it, just in different capacities,” said Johnson. 

Johnson’s work is quite commendable but her story unfortunately is the exception and not the rule in this matter. 

For one to climb the social and economic ladder in this country, a better education and the courage to start a business are crucial. Our country was built by entrepreneurs and innovators.   Becoming better educated or by providing the tools needed to start your own business helps former inmates turn their lives around. Maybe it’s time our lawmakers make a few changes to our current laws. 

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April Is Second Chance Month

By Joshua Martin
April 29, 2024