THE BLOG

Reversing Injustices of Mass Incarceration: It Takes a Village

06/22/2015 05:13 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016
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Our nation's commitment to mass incarceration began decades ago. In the early 1970s, America's prison population levels approximated the per-capita levels of other civilized countries. The escalation began after a sociologist published an influential article declaring that rehabilitation programs in prison failed to prepare people to live law-abiding lives that contributed to society. Other scholars followed. They wrote that since we couldn't reform people, we should build more prisons to confine them. Legislators began allocating billions of dollars to fund the expansion of our nation's prison system. Then we accelerated the War on Drugs, and prison population levels soared to unprecedented levels. We now incarcerate more people than any other nation.

Influential leaders like Justice Kennedy and former Senator Jim Webb call for prison and sentence reform. President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Senator Rand Paul speak about the injustices of mass incarceration. The influential Koch brothers are calling for reforms that would lead to a more effective criminal justice system. The policy group Right on Crime argues that prison and sentence reform make better economic sense than continuing policies that result in the warehousing of too many human beings.

But it's going to take more than political talk. We need action from community leaders.

The ancillary consequences of mass incarceration influence every American citizen. Our nation incarcerates more than 2.2 million people. Several million more people represent the formerly-incarcerated, with many serving time on supervised release, probation, or parole. According to published research, the costs of maintaining this massive system exceeds $75 billion each year. Yet high recidivism rates show that the longer we expose an individual to "corrections," the less likely that individual will emerge as a law-abiding citizen who contributes to society.

Many formerly incarcerated people struggle when they return to society. They face a job market that resists hiring felons. Without access to career-track employment, they have a hard time securing housing. Without housing, they cannot secure credit or resources that others take for granted. As a consequence, many children and family members of formerly incarcerated people suffer as well. Most of those people lack awareness about steps they can take to bring about a constituency for meaningful reform.

I concluded a 26-year obligation to the Federal Bureau of Prisons in August of 2013. Since then, I've worked to spread more awareness on why our nation's massive prison system represents one of the greatest social injustices of our time. By incarcerating too many people, and requiring those people to serve sentences that are far too long, we waste financial resources. Rather than diverting resources to sustain a bloated prison system, we should invest those resources to improve education, healthcare, and other systems that influence every American.

Besides creating programs to teach strategies to empower individuals who've encountered troubles with the criminal justice system, I work to open relationships with employers and business leaders. Those relationships can lead to employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals. The caveat: in order for our organization to recommend formerly incarcerated individuals for employment, those candidates must demonstrate their 100% commitment to living law-abiding lives that contribute to society as a whole.

I am thrilled to have opened a relationship with Ben Pouladian and his remarkable team at DECO Lighting, in the city of Commerce, California.

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Ben and his business partner, Sam Sinai, founded Deco Lighting a decade ago. Since then, they've built the green-energy company into a phenomenal success, serving customers around the globe. I toured the Deco Lighting facility and saw more than 100 "Superhero" team members. They impressed me with their positive attitudes and esprit de corps as they worked on assembly lines to manufacture their American-made, energy-efficient LED lighting products.

Many leaders talk about the importance of "People, products, and processes" when building a great company. The culture of Deco Lighting shows the value this growing organization places on each of those concepts. People come first.

After our interview and tour, Ben introduced me to his leadership team. They spoke with a unified voice saying that people deserve a second chance. Even the formerly incarcerated have an equal opportunity to join the Superhero team in this rapidly growing company. And if they perform well, a criminal background will not limit their ability to rise through the ranks. At Deco Lighting, leadership looks to the future rather than the past.

Deco Lighting's commitment to social justice makes an enormous difference.

When business leaders open career-track employment opportunities for the formerly incarcerated, we begin to resolve some of the ancillary injustices of mass incarceration. I'll continue my search through our village to find more business leaders who will join this effort of opening employment opportunities for the formerly incarcerated.