Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Vick and a Second Chance

Dean Trulear


September 25, 2009

While the world’s attention may be focused on the big G-20 summit in Pittsburgh this weekend, scores of media will descend on Philadelphia at the other end of the state for a different reason. Sunday’s professional football game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs will focus attention on the return of quarterback Michael Vick after having served a prison term for operating a dog-fighting ring.

Vick’s return shines an intense light on public opinion about prisoner reentry. His signing with the Eagles brought outrage from people who thought he had forfeited his right to play football again because of the nature of his crime. Others, including his new employers, declared that he deserved a second chance. An alert Philadelphia columnist questioned the team’s commitment to “second chances,” however, noting that if this were the organization’s philosophy, a good number of its employees (non-playing) would come from those ranks as well.

Not likely. Not only does Philadelphia’s football team not exhibit any desire to hire persons out of prison, but many job opportunities continue to escape the grasp of persons who have supposedly “paid their debt to society.” Indeed, as of this writing, no employer in Philadelphia has taken advantage of the tax breaks offered to those who hire men and women with prison records.

This does not mean all employers avoid hiring persons with criminal records. Some do, but they decline to apply for the tax break for fear of negative publicity for their business if “the word gets out.” And, of course, there are certain places where law, common sense, or both, create sanctions against the employment of persons with certain types of criminal convictions. Clearly, the stigma of crime and imprisonment will continue to affect our ability to see clearly our responsibility to provide opportunity for persons returning from incarceration.

The Second Chance Act—a 2007 federal law responding to the need of more support for those formerly incarcerated—makes funding available for prisoner reentry programs that support housing, employment, and education for those released from prison.

There are complications, however. The recession makes employment a challenge for more than just those who have been to prison. While states such as Michigan have launched aggressive policies to reduce recidivism by investing in prisoner reentry, others still bear the marks of a punitive culture bent on extracting revenge and restricting opportunity. High profile criminal cases involving repeat offenders continue to fan flames of opposition to reentry support, often obscuring the many who seek the opportunity and assistance necessary to successfully reintegrate into society and become productive citizens.

People of faith, especially Christians, have a responsibility to investigate this entire situation and make reasoned responses to the high numbers of persons (approximately 650,000 in 2008) returning from incarceration. Michigan has hired a full-time staff person to cultivate partnerships between its Department of Correction’s Prisoner Reentry Initiative and the faith community, using the Healing Communities model developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

New Jersey’s deputy attorney general for reentry, supported by that state’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, will convene faith leaders from across the state in late October to continue to build partnerships around reentry. And this very weekend, when the media descend on Philadelphia to follow Vick’s high-profile return, the Indiana Office of Faith-Based Initiatives is convening a summit in Fort Wayne to strengthen their reentry partnerships.

There is a role for the church in dealing with prisoner reentry and there is no excuse for inaction.

—Harold Dean Trulear, Professor of Practical Theology
   Howard University Divinity School

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”