For A More Just Texas, We Must Restore Hope for the Formerly Incarcerated

Imagine the impact if instead of exacerbating the collateral consequences of a prison sentence, Texans supported and gave hope to those trying to successfully re-enter society. That is the goal of a new statewide effort we’ll be launching this month called the Real Hope Committee,  a team of community leaders from government, business, healthcare, faith institutions, and the social sector who will aim to support reentry for the formerly incarcerated. To make a meaningful difference, we need citizens across every Texas community to get involved.

Currently, when individuals in Texas leave prison, they are given a $100 check, a 10-day supply of medication, a list of community resources, the clothes on their back, and a bus voucher.  For those who are able to take advantage of the programming options available to them, they more importantly come back rehabilitated, with some marketable skills and trades. Only to enter a society that often seems intent on continuing to punish them long after their judicial sentence is completed by legally denying them licensing, housing, education, or employment opportunities. For many the barriers feel insurmountable and the situation seems hopeless.

Restoring hope for these citizens will take all of us. On the government side, we’ve made recent strides on recidivism legislation, like H.B. 918, a bill passed last year to increase employment opportunities among formerly incarcerated people. But just as important are the many actions that everyday citizens can take to restore hope.

For example, private property owners and landlords can play a critical role in helping people released from prison secure housing. Formerly incarcerated people in Texas are 10 times more likely to be homeless than those with clean records. And the un-housed are 11 times more likely to end up in prison. Since private landlords have wide latitude to determine their screening criteria for tenants, they have the power to help justice-involved people with obtaining their most basic physiological need, shelter.

Employers can also play a starring role in providing hope for those with records. Despite praiseworthy efforts like “Ban the Box” to eliminate criminal history questions from job applications, data shows that having a record still reduces employer callback rates by 50 percent. Employers are missing the chance to tap into an eager, capable, and resilient workforce. We need more Texas companies to agree to look holistically at a person’s record—to see not just what they’ve done and where they’ve been, but who they are and where they’re going.

It’s understandable that the idea of renting to or hiring someone with a record can breed anxiety when people are described as criminals, inmates, ex-cons. We need to change the language we use to describe those with records. They are not “offenders” as this term implies a permanent state. Rather, they are individuals who have committed an offense. The use of this type of terminology helps to change the culture of public perception. It rightly articulates that an offense is not equal to permanent state. It invokes empathy, forgiveness and it restores hope, because it acknowledges that they have paid their debt to society and are moving forward.

For too long, advocates in the fight for justice for the formerly incarcerated have been going at this issue in silos. Our approach is built on community education, engagement and collaboration.  It is through the Real Hope Committee that we will promote cooperation across all sectors to solve the problem. We’ll be announcing the members of the committee on October 16th at the virtual HOPE Summit, and we invite all members of the public to register to attend. Through this multi-stakeholder engagement, we hope to raise awareness and put forward tangible solutions for reducing recidivism and helping struggling citizens successfully re-enter society.

Justice is a team sport. The end of a sanctioned sentence should not be the beginning of a new lifelong sentence carried out outside of the justice system. Instead, leaders from government, business, and faith-based communities across Texas must join with landlords, doctors, and lawyers to extend a hand to the formerly incarcerated—and in doing so, offer the one thing that matters most: Hope.