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The Dilemma: Communities and the Justice Involved




It’s a complex dilemma: the vast majority, if not all, of individuals serving a period of incarceration have an intense desire to return to their communities. However, these communities often greet returning former inmates with reluctance and even rejection, creating a stark contrast between the hopeful anticipation of homecoming and the harsh reality of societal reintegration for justice-involved individuals. Unfortunately, the results are far more problematic than just a ‘tough time’ for former prisoners.


While returning individuals envision a warm reception back into their communities, the harsh truth is far from heartwarming. Instead, a significant portion of returnees find themselves facing daunting challenges such as unemployment, homelessness, and pervasive despair. This reality is compounded by the stigma attached to having a criminal record (studies show 60% of employers would not even consider hiring someone with a criminal record – despite the type of charge or the length of time that has passed since the conviction), further impeding their ability to reintegrate successfully.


For some, this predicament may seem like a just consequence of their past actions, as society often views incarceration as punishment for criminal behavior. Consequently, there is a prevailing attitude that individuals who have committed crimes deserve the hardships they encounter upon re-entry. This sentiment is often perpetuated by those in positions of authority within our communities, who routinely turn a blind eye to the struggles faced by the justice-involved.


However, what many fail to recognize is the communal responsibility inherent in the process of reintegration. By disregarding the challenges faced by returning citizens, communities are essentially undermining their own potential for growth and progress. Ignoring the needs of justice-involved individuals not only perpetuates cycles of poverty and recidivism but also deprives communities of valuable contributions and potential resources.


Moreover, the barriers to successful re-entry are not solely the result of individual choices or shortcomings. Structural inequalities and systemic barriers play a significant role in perpetuating cycles of incarceration and marginalization. Factors such as limited access to education, employment opportunities, and affordable housing disproportionately affect marginalized communities, exacerbating the challenges faced by justice-involved individuals upon their return.


However, addressing these systemic issues requires more than the current multifaceted approaches purportedly seeking to address the interconnectedness of social, economic, and criminal justice systems. This includes programs aimed at providing direct support and resources for re-entry, such as job training, housing assistance, and mental health services. Currently, there are plenty of services and organizations throughout the Greater Indianapolis area (and beyond) that offer these exact services, yet the issues persist. Why?


In order to answer this fundamental question, we need to look beyond the band-aid solutions that are typically paraded about for public consumption. While direct support services are indeed necessary, the implications of fostering a culture of acceptance and inclusivity within our communities cannot be overstated. This is particularly true in light of the staggering number of individuals reentering society post-incarceration in the United States, a number that exceeds 600,000 men and women annually. It's abundantly clear that for their successful reintegration, a fundamental shift in societal attitudes is imperative. This shift necessitates a bold challenge to the prevailing stereotypes and stigmas that shroud individuals with past criminal behaviors and records, all while recognizing the inherent humanity and capacity for redemption within each person.


Why is this a controversial concept? At the core of those returning home lies a simple yet profound aspiration: to embark on a fresh start in the most constructive manner possible. Period. And while this aspiration encompasses the basic needs of securing gainful employment and attaining stable housing, the inclusive need of being treated with fairness and respect by fellow community members is an integral component of any successful reintegration. So, while the harsh reality of systemic employment and housing discrimination remains a persistent barrier, these challenges are severely compounded by the community at large treating the justice-involved as pariahs in their own communities.


Given the scarcity of viable alternatives that cater to the fundamental necessities of life (despite the best efforts of those myriad direct support services) and the pervasive sense of rejection from the wider community, it's hardly astonishing that numerous individuals grappling with disenfranchisement gravitate towards environments and behaviors that offer little prospect for social reintegration. Surprisingly, however, the outcome isn't typically the commission of further criminal acts (though this does happen). Instead, what usually unfolds is a cycle of detrimental and antisocial conduct, characterized by mental health disorders, substance abuse, widespread homelessness, and similar challenges, all of which places considerable distress upon communities. Studies conducted by the Vera Institute clearly indicate that communities which experience high rates of incarceration face increased economic strain, communal disruption and reduction in public safety.


The current status quo is and should be unacceptable to every member of our community. Effectively addressing these challenges demands a dedicated effort and a steadfast commitment to reforming policies and practices that perpetuate discrimination against justice-involved individuals. By fostering an environment of acceptance, understanding, and opportunity, we can pave the way for a more inclusive society where everyone, regardless of past mistakes, has the chance to rebuild their lives and make meaningful contributions to their communities. It is only through collective action and unwavering dedication to equity and justice that we can truly achieve the vision of a society where everyone thrives.

Ultimately, creating a more welcoming and supportive environment for justice-involved individuals benefits not only the individuals themselves but also the communities they return to. By recognizing the inherent dignity and worth of every individual, we can work towards building more equitable and inclusive communities where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.


That said, next time we can discuss how we, as a community, can accomplish this.

 

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