Can we forgive? Are there second chances in life for those who have erred? Beyond forgiveness, can we lend a helping hand to those who have erred?
As much as anything else in the patchwork of efforts to save Detroit, from developing the riverfront to housing, from transportation to jobs, the answers to those questions will make or break the city.
I'm talking about the large number of Detroiters who have been imprisoned with felony convictions. According to the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative, the state paroles more than 10,000 people each year. More than half of them return to Wayne County and the majority of them return to Detroit. That adds up over the years.
Nationally, statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice say that there are more than 2 million people behind bars in the United States. That's a higher percentage than in any other country. And prisons are a $60 billion industry. There's big money changing hands here and, like most American industries, growth is the goal.
But more pertinent to majority African-American communities such as Detroit, blacks are being jailed at an incredibly high rate. Remember the old Richard Pryor joke about justice? You go down to the jail and that's what you see, "just us." Pryor wasn't just joking. Blacks are just 12 percent of the U.S. population, but, according to a 2003 report from Human Rights Watch, we comprise 44 percent of the prison population. In Michigan blacks are 14.2 percent of the population yet comprise 48.9 percent of prison inmates.
Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that nobody's out to get you.
A big part of prison population growth is for nonviolent offenses such as drug use. OK, drugs are illegal and if you get caught with them you go to jail. But consider this point from the HRW report: "Although the proportion of all drug users who are black is generally in the range of 13 to 15 percent, blacks constitute 36 percent of arrests for drug possession. Blacks constitute 63 percent of all drug offenders admitted to state prisons. In at least 15 states, black men were sent to prison on drug charges at rates ranging from 20 to 57 times those of white men."
Let's just say there is a little more zeal in law enforcement when it comes to brothers.
When those people have served their sentences, paid their debt to society, the punishment is not over. Most employers don't want to hire someone with a felony conviction.
"Be mindful of fact that in this state we have drastic economic conditions," says Andre Johnson, president and CEO of the nonprofit Detroit Recovery Project. "We know people who have a history of being involved in the criminal justice system are five steps behind. They're the last ones people want to hire. They're stigmatizing people who have a history of incarceration. When you have to answer that question on an employment application, if you have been convicted of a felony, your first response will be no. There are folks out here with college educations and degrees having trouble getting jobs. You know there are gonna be problems with the ex-addict, the ex-offender. ... People don't overcome those kinds of issues unless they have a job. If you don't have job its only a matter of time before you re-offend."
Detroit Recovery Project helps people with the transition back to society by helping them create a support system. It helps with skills as basic as how to fill out a job application, how to dress properly for work, basic computer skills and how to leave the prison mentality behind.
Johnson mentioned a client who didn't know how to use a cell phone because "cell phones weren't around when I got locked up in 1995."
There's a skills gap. There's a culture gap. And unless these people are brought along, there's not a lot of hope for other city recovery efforts.
Another agency, Elmhurst Home Inc., a private nonprofit, works with ex-offenders to help change their ways through cognitive behavioral therapy. It's a residential program for men (Naomi's Nest is the sister agency for women), who stay there anywhere from 30 days to six months. At any given time they have 100 to 130 residents.
"Every client has an individualized treatment program," says therapist case manager Duane Easson. "We help people ... change their perceptions of life. People who engage in substance abuse and criminal conduct are very reactive. We get them to think about the alternatives to that automatic thought. It's about introspection. They write daily thought reports and autobiographies. They look at their past."
Easson helps clients plug into support systems, pointing out there is a 10 percent to 20 percent greater success rate for those who connect with family, church and the world of work. And most of all, he promotes self-conscious thought.
"One of the things that I'm hopeful about, we're starting to see a lot of people having a response to cognitive therapy," Easson says. "Thinking about what they're thinking about. Thinking about families, church and getting plugged in. It's so important to get plugged back into community and involved. You've separated yourself from everyone."
Even beyond support systems, there are so many hurdles to overcome after you are released from jail. Many men come out with warrants in place due to not having paid child support while they were incarcerated. Unpaid parking tickets might be a problem. For substance abusers, sustaining sobriety is huge.
All this adds up to high stakes for Detroit.
"That's a deterrent you don't have a viable work force," says Easson. "When you have such a high level of people with a criminal conduct history who cannot move into those jobs, a lot of employers won't take the risk of moving into the community."
Usually when we talk about rebuilding the city, we talk about nice things like the shiny, new development along the riverfront. When corporations talk about locating in a city, they talk about the employee base. Guess which one is more important?
High incarceration rates affect our civic life in a number of ways. In 37 states thankfully, Michigan is not among them felons are barred from voting even after their incarceration. More than a million African-American felons are excluded from choosing dogcatchers, mayors and presidents by those rules.
Think about the impact that had on the 2000 presidential election in Florida. Think of the potential impact that has for the future. When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had its national convention recently in Detroit, the organization passed two resolutions related to the issue. One is to push to restore ex-felons' rights immediately upon release from prison. The other is a call to Congress to restore prisoners' Pell Grant eligibility to promote higher education opportunities for inmates.
Human Rights Watch noted an interesting point regarding disenfranchisement of felon convicts: "Nothing is more likely to predict high incarceration totals and rates at the state level than ... a disproportionately large black population. Also worth noting, race is the single largest factor determining which states deny voting rights to felons and ex-felons. The higher the black composition of a state's prisoner population, the more likely that state is to disenfranchise its officially marked 'criminal element.'"Larry Gabriel is a former editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]