I hear politicians and pastors talk all the time about the need to give people a chance to get back on their feet. They say everyone makes mistakes and that no one is perfect. Democrats especially say we should have re-entry programs to help ex-offenders find jobs and overcome addictions, and that we should welcome them back when they do the hard work of resurrecting their lives.
But what I quickly found was that we don’t completely mean what we say. We want to welcome them back, but not next door. We want them to find work, but not in our office. We want them to renew their faith, but not at our church.
The Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee nominated Greg Hall to take over the House of Delegates seat stripped from Tiffany Alston in the wake of her criminal conviction for misusing state funds. But Gov. Martin O’Malley balked at the nomination. Now the central committee is awaiting court action before deciding whether it should revoke Hall’s nomination and allow the governor to choose a replacement.
Hall’s story as a young man is all too familiar to us. Twenty years ago, he was convicted of selling cocaine and carrying a gun illegally. Worse still, he was involved in a shootout that led to the death of a teenage bystander. Hall didn’t fire the bullet that killed the boy, but he went to jail until the murder charge was dropped and later was convicted separately on a misdemeanor gun charge.
The United States leads the world when it comes to incarceration. Nearly 2.5 million — a disproportionate amount who are African American — are behind bars today. A total of 7.2 million nationwide are in jail, on probation or on parole. In Baltimore, for example, nearly one-third of all black males are either in jail, on probation or on parole.
But a funny thing happened to Hall on the way to becoming a statistic: He turned his life around.
He started a business and became a father and a husband. He became active in politics, volunteering to work on campaigns and raising money for nonprofits, and eventually joining the staff of an elected county official. He became an example of how an ex-offender could become a productive member of the community he once menaced.
When I became state’s attorney in 2003, I quickly realized Prince George’s County could not “jail” its way out of our crime problems. Sure, we had to lock up violent, repeat offenders. But 99 percent of the time, everyone who went to jail would eventually come out — back to our neighborhoods. The question was whether we were doing enough to help them get on the right side. I started reaching out to ex-offenders, with mixed results, I’ll admit. It quickly became clear to me that I knew how to talk about ex-offenders, but not how to talk to them. I really wasn’t getting through to them.
So I reached out to Hall. He gave me ideas about the challenges ex-offenders faced, and how I could help them not only find jobs and continue their education, but also how to help them believe society really would give them a second chance. I used Hall’s example as a way to show them they could make it, too.
That is why it is hard for me to agree that Hall should be blocked from the House of Delegates. I’ve listened closely to the arguments, but it usually comes down to, “It looks bad for Prince George’s to replace one criminal with another,” or the more genteel version, “We can do better.”
But I can’t help but think that this is our chance to really back up all the rhetoric about second chances and to actually do better.
I have no doubt that sending a felon to Annapolis will “make us look bad,” at least to some. But to the men and women who have lived imperfect lives and made horrible mistakes, it might send a message of hope.
Clearly, there are some people who share my view. That is why Hall got so many votes when he ran for the delegate seat in 2010. In fact, he only missed being elected by 300 votes, even though he never hid his criminal past.
Writer Oscar Wilde once said, “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” The question now is what kind of future will they have? Will we really allow them a fresh start or will there always be a glass ceiling setting artificial limits on how high their talents and ambitions can take them?
Glenn Ivey, a partner at the Leftwich & Ludaway law firm in Washington, D.C., was the state’s attorney for Prince George’s County from 2002 to 2010.