We have a responsibility to offer a second chance

Corrections reform needs to begin by acknowledging that an individual’s humanity is not diminished by incarceration.

As we talk about prison population reduction and recidivism reduction, we need to talk in terms of people - an investment in the people in our custody, in our corrections systems and in our communities.

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It comes down to giving people, giving individuals, giving humans a second chance.

If I was judged by my worst day, I wouldn’t be sitting here. Fortunately, people judge me holistically. When I take a misstep, or our system has a misstep, I am judged through the filter of all my accomplishments.

We need to think about that when we think about individuals who commit crimes.

Yes, there needs to be accountability. We need to say to individuals who commit crimes, ‘Your actions have had a negative impact on the community – but now, we’re going to help you.’  

We’re going to put you on a path, not where you don’t commit another crime, because that’s a pretty low bar, we’re going to put you on a path to be a successful, fully restored citizen. Wouldn’t that be great?

We need to take ownership of the outcomes of individuals in our system.

And it really starts with the acknowledgement of the individual, regardless of what they did. Because if we don’t value individuals, we can treat them any way we want.

We can talk about corrections, conditions of confinement, programming, what occurs day-to-day, how we treat them, do we give them jobs - all that says more about us than the individuals who commit the crime.

Because holding them accountable, creating an environment where they can be restored and valuing them, is exactly what our system should look like.

In the criminal justice system, when someone commits a crime, the response should be equal to the proportion of the action itself. Then we need to put individuals on a path so when they come out the back end of the system, they are less likely to commit a crime than when they came in the front end of the system.

Much like our expectations going to a hospital. When you’re sick, you expect to come out feeling better than when you went in. Why are we dissimilar?  

In the criminal justice system, we have as much of a stake as those folks going to the hospital.

We have an opportunity when somebody comes to us, to help that individual become a better person.

Today, the reality is we have 2.3 million individuals who are in our care. 

Ninety percent of them will come out some day.

How do we want them to come out? What can we do?

We talk about reentry. When we open the back door, they leave. They’ve reentered. We haven’t met our goal to restore them; they just reentered.

We need to not just give them a place to live, but teach them how to live.

We need to not just get them a job, but teach them the value of employment, of providing for themselves and providing for their families.

This is our responsibility.

Prison populations are down in nearly 30 state corrections systems, along with the federal prison system. More than that, crime continues to go down. The Second Chance Act, Justice Reinvestment Initiative and other investments are examples of government working together at its best.

Our consistent goal needs to be restoring individuals, giving people a second chance. We’re reducing population, reducing crime and improving outcomes.

But the one thing we can’t do is be satisfied. We’re not there yet.

We have the opportunity to be better.

We need to create an environment where these individuals can succeed. As evidenced by events like the one this morning on re-entry sponsored by the bipartisan U.S. Justice Action Network and Coalition for Public Safety, America has a real opportunity to significantly change how we respond to crime.

When we talk about second chances, I challenge you to think about another group of people: the children and families of incarcerated individuals.

Because by giving incarcerated individuals a second chance, you’re giving another group of individuals a first chance.

Take a second chance and turn it into first chance for kids who deserve it; a first chance for families; a first chance for communities.

The Second Chance Act is a first chance opportunity.

Wetzel is secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

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