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Originally published Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: Give former prisoners a second chance

If we are to work our way out of this mass-incarceration hole, everyday people need to take a chance on a fellow human being, writes guest columnist Shon Hopwood.

Special to The Seattle Times

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WHEN I sat down for an interview with the owners of Cockle Law Brief Printing Company in Omaha, Neb., the first thing I had to explain was an 11-year gap in work history. I remember the silence as I stammered on about my recent release from a federal prison.

I told them that at the age of 22, I held up five banks and, because of the incredible foolishness of my youth, I received a much-deserved sentence of more than 12 years in federal prison.

But, I assured them, I am not that guy anymore. I have not been for quite some time.

The Cockles ultimately decided to give me a chance. They gave me a job.

That one big break made all the difference in the world.

My life is now poles apart from what it was just four years ago. I am a loving husband and a doting father of two young children. I am a community volunteer and law-school student, with hopes to one day become a lawyer helping those unable to afford access to our courts.

And I am no different from many of the 600,000 people released every year from federal and state prisons.

To be sure, we did bad things and we deserved punishment. But many of us have the capacity to change, if only given an opportunity at a fresh start.

Unfortunately, many of those currently incarcerated are not new to the criminal-justice system. They are the people recycled through the system: They served some time and were released, re-offended and were sentenced to more time.

Prisoners call this “serving life on the installment plan.” Our elected leaders call it the recidivism rate. Currently, more than two-thirds of released prisoners will commit new crimes within three years. In Washington, the recidivism rate is nearly half.

With such pitiable outcomes, it is easy to declare that we need solutions to our onerous prison problem. The United States has more than 2 million people caged behind bars, stainless steel and cinder blocks at a cost of more than $70 billion each year.

Washington, too, spends an excessive amount of money housing prisoners. The Vera Institute for Justice calculated the taxpayer costs for housing one person in Washington prisons. Their final tally: more than $46,000 a year for one prisoner. Or, to put it differently, the same cost for three undergraduate students to attend the University of Washington.

Our governments, of course, need to alter their policies so prisoners are provided re-entry programs, which will reduce taxpayer costs, and to protect the community, by preventing new crimes from being committed. For example, Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell’s proposal — to prevent most Seattle employers from screening job applicants with criminal histories until late in the hiring process — could result in putting former prisoners to work while simultaneously breaking the cycle of recidivism.

But what we really need is for average citizens to remember that they, too, have made mistakes, and they should be willing to give a former inmate an opportunity.

If we are to work our way out of this mass-incarceration hole, it will undoubtedly be because everyday people, like the Cockles, decided to take a chance on a fellow human being. Programs would help, such as Seattle’s own Prison Post-Education Project, which helps provide released prisoners with educational opportunities. For those who finish the program, the recidivism rate falls to only 2 percent. Credit would also go to organizations such as the Seattle Union Gospel Mission that helps homeless former prisoners get back on their feet.

In other words, the best prison reform will come from you.

Shon Hopwood is co-author of “Law Man: My Story of Robbing Banks, Winning Supreme Court Cases, and Finding Redemption.” He is a Gates Public Service Law Scholar at the University of Washington School of Law. On Twitter @shonhopwood.

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