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Boston: A City of Second Chances

Joining the First Lady and Dr. Jill Biden in the box during the State of the Union address Tuesday night was a woman named Sue Ellen Allen.  Sue Ellen served almost seven years in prison for a fraud conviction and struggled through a maze of obstacles to get back on her feet when she was released.  Determined to support others in her situation, she founded Gina’s Team, a reentry service center dedicated to providing women a path out of prison and back into society.  The center is named for her cellmate, who died behind bars.

Sue Ellen’s journey, though unique in its own way, is shared by millions of formerly incarcerated men and women – and by countless more with a criminal record.  More than 600,000 people come out of state and federal prisons every year, and more than 11 million cycle through local jails annually.  One in four Americans has had some sort of contact with the criminal justice system, and they often encounter what must seem like an unending barrage of collateral penalties designed to keep them from returning to society as productive citizens.

Attorney General Lynch, Photo provided courtesy of the Suffolk County Sheriff's Department/Photographer David Hill
Attorney General Lynch, Photo provided courtesy of the Suffolk County Sheriff's Department/Photographer David Hill


The good news is that thanks to a growing number of programs like Gina’s Team, more and more people with criminal histories are able to come back to their communities prepared to make a positive difference.  Yesterday, I had the privilege of visiting three such outstanding programs in Boston as part of the “State of the Union: Cabinet in Your Community” tour: the Common Ground Institute, is a 10-week instructional program designed to enhance employment skills for returning individuals; Community Reentry for Women, or C.R.E.W., which offers life skills instruction, job placement, and health care services to female inmates serving sentences of three months or longer; and the Boston Reentry Initiative, a public safety and service strategy that focuses on high risk inmates who will be returning to Boston neighborhoods.  This last initiative in particular involves a broad range of partners, including the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department, the Boston Police Department, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, and key service organizations, and an evaluation found that participants were approximately 30 percent less likely to be rearrested.

I met with several participants in these programs – both currently and formerly incarcerated individuals – and I heard them describe how the services they received were critical not only in giving them specific skills and tools, but also in connecting them to people who are in their corner and rooting for them to succeed.  The Boston Reentry Initiative’s director, True-See Allah, summed it up when he said, “I don’t care how much you know, but how much you care.”  Others in the program described the incredible support they have received and how that support has helped motivate them to want a different path.  One participant, now crime-free for eight years after serving a number of jail stints earlier in his life, told us, “You’ve got to want it. . . and you’ve got to be with people who want it for you.”  As he shared these words, he was looking not at me, but at a current participant whose release was days away.

The Department of Justice is dedicated to supporting efforts like these.  Since 2009, we have made more than $400 million in Second Chance Act funds available to programs like the Boston Reentry Initiative to support comprehensive adult and juvenile reentry services.  We have also been working through the Federal Interagency Reentry Council – which I have the privilege of chairing – to reduce policy barriers to successful reentry.  The council and its 23 member agencies continue to make great strides, opening up opportunities in education, job placement, housing, and a host of other areas critical to successful reintegration.  With the help of our new Second Chance Fellow, Daryl Atkinson – himself a formerly incarcerated person and now a prominent legal advocate working to promote effective reentry and justice reform – the council is raising awareness of the importance of reentry strategies that both increase public safety and fulfill our nation’s commitment to the promise of individual redemption.

President Obama has said that “America is a nation of second chances.”  People like Sue Ellen Allen, Daryl Atkinson, True-See Allah, and the many advocates and professionals who run reentry programs across the country are showing us what a second chance can look like: greater opportunity for those eager to make a fresh start, safer and healthier communities for those who welcome them back, and an affirmation of fundamental principles of fairness, dignity, and possibility for all Americans.  As one of the women I met with said, “I want to be on the other side of the table,” referring to where the successful formerly incarcerated members of the group were sitting.  “I’ve got the potential.”  In the days and months ahead, the Department of Justice will continue to support reentry programs that recognize that potential, and that give formerly incarcerated individuals the chance they deserve to return home and succeed.

Updated March 3, 2017