Recently, the New York Times published what was supposed to be a spectacular expose about New York Gov. David Paterson and his administration. Instead many media commentators like Howard Kurtz, a media observer for the Washington Post and host of CNN's Reliable Sources, said on his Twitter account Wednesday that the Times report on the aide "caps a shameful period of media outlets trumpeting rumors about the governor."
While I agree with Kurtz's analysis, I also think the article touched on an extremely important issue. It talked about Gov. Paterson's closest confidant in his administration, David Johnson, a top aide, who the New York Times painted as someone with a criminal record who should not be in the position he is. Johnson sold cocaine to a undercover cop when he was 18 years old. Gov. Paterson responded, saying "David Johnson has demonstrated, over the course of his adult life, that people can change their personal circumstances and achieve success when given a second chance. I will not turn my back on someone because of mistakes made as a teenager."
As an ex-offender who served hard time, I believe that Gov. Paterson should be applauded for giving David Johnson the opportunity to excel. There are many roadblocks that exist when people with criminal records, mostly ex-offenders, try to reenter society. Statistically, it is well known that if you wind up in prison and you are fortunate enough to regain your freedom, odds are, you will be going back sometime soon.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 67 percent of those set free return to prison within three years. There are many obstacles one meets that can contribute to this startling statistic. Carrying the stigma of being an ex-offender is often debilitating. From obtaining employment and housing, to establishing relationships, life becomes difficult at best.
Ex-offenders struggle to shed the memories of imprisonment after paying their debts to society. But the stigma of having a criminal record follows them around for life. They face a daunting array of counterproductive and frustrating legal and practical barriers, including state and federal laws and policy that hinder their ability to quality for a job or get a higher education. But these policies that stigmatize those with criminal records are now being challenged, as is the case in New Mexico, where legislation has passed that will remove unfair barriers to employment for those who have criminal convictions. That bill now awaits Gov. Richardson's signature. No longer will job applicants have to check a box on a job application alerting potential employers that they have a criminal conviction.
Upon reentering society ex-offenders will find a host of problems preventing them from successfully reintegrating. These include not being able to find employment or secure housing, dealing with substance abuse and mental health problems, difficulty in reestablishing and developing relationships. All of these make life exceedingly difficult and often debilitating. This, coupled with dealing with issues such as institutional dependency and carrying the baggage of incarceration, results in the ex-offender returning to prison either on a parole violation or a new sentence.
All these above mentioned factors results in preventing the returning prisoner to become lawful tax paying citizens and inhibit their ability to take care of themselves and their families.
David Johnson's ability to overcome the circumstances of his past is remarkable and should be attributed to the help he received from people like Gov. Paterson who believe in second chances. The Times, the paper of record, released a "bombshell" that turned out to be nothing more than a dud.
Anthony Papa is the communications specialist for the drug policy alliance and author of a forthcoming book "This Side of Freedom - Life after Lockdown"