Opinion Editorial

Timothy J. Heaphy

U.S. Attorney Opinion Editorial

Virginia Believes in Second Chances

By: Timothy J. Heaphy


In June of last year, I sat on a metal chair in the federal prison located in Lee County, Virginia.  Across from me sat Derek, whom I had prosecuted for drug crimes a decade earlier.  Derek and I talked about his job skills and his resume in a mock job interview, part of a day-long reentry program. 

Derek was one of the approximately 13,000 Virginians who returned home from a federal or state prison in 2012.  Skills like the job interviewing we practiced are critical to Derek’s ability to stay off the streets and out of prison, and to start his life over again as a taxpaying, law-abiding citizen.  

The majority of those incarcerated are not violent, dangerous criminals, but rather nonviolent offenders serving time for drug, fraud, and other offenses.   What can men and women like Derek expect when they come home?  Employment is their largest challenge.  In a sluggish economy where even qualified workers with unblemished pasts struggle to find work, ex-offenders are at the back of the line for meaningful employment.  They face additional challenges:

  • Identification papers. Those incarcerated for long periods of time often have no birth certificates, driver’s licenses, or social security cards. These items are crucial in the search for employment and are not easily obtained, especially for those with little or no access to transportation and money.

  • Debt.  While incarcerated, child support payments, credit card payments and other bills keep coming. These debts are not forgiven simply because someone is doing time.  Fines and restitution add to a prisoner’s debt and must be repaid. 

  • Family.  Many former prisoners have no home to which they can return. They leave the prison walls behind only to find that friends and family have moved, passed away, or no longer wish to maintain prior relationships. 

There are resources to help Derek and others like him tackle the enormous challenges of reintegrating into society.  Successful reentry programs begin in our prisons, and the Virginia Department of Corrections and the Federal Bureau of Prisons have extensive programs for education, training and transition planning to ease coming home. 

Once released, specialized state and federal reentry courts provide services to some returning prisoners and help them address challenges like addiction, poor parenting skills, and anger management.  Fortunately, non-profit organizations like Total Action for Progress, Virginia CARES and others work with ex-offenders to better their chances for successful, law-abiding lives.

Helping ex-offenders should not, however, be left to only formal programs.  Everyone can play a role in helping people like Derek reenter our communities.  Many of the men and women streaming out of our prisons each year have the strong desire to change their lives, avoid returning to prison, and contribute to society.  All of us can help:

  • Can you provide education, training, or treatment to those who badly need these services?  Churches, clubs and non-profit organizations need volunteers to provide assistance to ex-offenders.

  • Can you or your company hire an ex-offender?  When someone is released from prison, he or she is likely still under court supervision.  These potential employees come with a built-in means of accountability through their probation officers. They often have specialized training in carpentry, food service, laundry and other industries and are accustomed to strict work schedules.

  • Can you provide a forum for recently returned prisoners to give back to their communities?  Many ex-offenders are eager to share their experience and help others avoid their mistakes. They can make motivated volunteers and provide useful insight about how to avoid criminal choices.   

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.”  His message is that we are all made successful when our neighbors succeed.  What can you do to strengthen our “garment of destiny,” and assist the difficult transition ex-offenders face when reentering society?  It will take a community effort to make things easier for Derek and others like him who call Western Virginia home.

Timothy J. Heaphy is United States Attorney for the Western District of Virginia

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