April is National Second Chance Month, a time to center the voices, experiences, and promise of people involved in the criminal justice system. In this moment, we need to redouble our commitment to eliminate barriers to opportunity when they return to our shared communities.
Over 70 million Americans have interacted with the criminal justice system. On any given day, over 2.2 million people are in prison or jail. Roughly 650,000 people are released every year, and it’s no secret that the obstacles they will face when they leave amount to everything but a second chance. In fact, many of them never received a first chance.
This context is critical. To truly understand the criminal justice system in America is to understand its painful intersection with racial and economic injustice. In many ways, the system was designed to criminalize poverty and people of color. The history of race in America and the legacy of mass incarceration tell that story all too well. Our country’s pipeline to prison is rooted in structural inequality, including educational disparities, spatial segregation, environmental injustice, unemployment, economic marginalization, untreated mental health, and exposure to trauma. These disparities—disproportionately experienced by people of color—are intertwined, concentrated, and often intergenerational. So there’s no coincidence that almost two-thirds of the prison population is Black and Latino, most of them coming from low-income communities where these disparities are pervasive and systematically imposed.
This context is why when we talk about reentry reform at CLASP, we talk about it as one piece of a larger effort. There are over 40,000 collateral consequences that prevent or limit returning citizens’ access to living-wage employment, education, housing, health care, and economic opportunity. Yet addressing these barriers is only the beginning. Comprehensive reform requires institutional change across systems, and policy action is a critical starting point. Core pending federal legislation like the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Second Chance Act, and Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act, and initiatives to spur innovation and cross-system collaboration like the Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry are incredibly important, but so are policies and programs at the federal, state, and local level that are both core and tangential.
Second chances should be about rebuilding broken systems, not just the people broken by them. That’s why CLASP advocates for robust community investment; mental health resources; well-funded, quality education systems; employment opportunities; economic security; and racial equity as core components of our justice and anti-poverty policy strategies. More importantly, as global citizens, we fight for equity and humanity for the most marginalized. During Second Chance Month, we challenge everyone, especially policymakers, to consider these angles and be part of the solution.