We've all made mistakes at some time or another.
For most of us, whether we've lost touch with someone or didn't take a chance on something, those mistakes help us grow, and we move on. Sometimes, unfortunately, those mistakes are big enough to ruin lives.
For those who have been convicted of a felony crime and served time in prison, picking up the pieces and putting their lives back together is an uphill challenge.
We know that some may fail and offend again, but for those ex-offenders who want to start over, Tennessee has made some changes in state law and offers programs that make it easier to get back on your feet.
Many employers are reluctant to hire ex-offenders, even those who have paid their debt to society and need a fresh start.
It is an important challenge, not just for ex-offenders, but for all of us, to see more ex-offenders find jobs. Of all those serving time in Tennessee prisons, 97 percent will reenter society. Unfortunately, within three years, 46 percent will be rearrested and return to prison or jail.
The key to rebuilding their lives and keeping them from re-offending is simple: help them find a job to make an honest living.
Their struggles affect all of us. There are nearly 10,000 people in Shelby County on probation or parole, and 3,184 people from Shelby County currently serving time in state prison. With 7.1 percent unemployment in our county, it's critical that we find ways for our ex-offenders to get back to work!
Several recent changes point to progress on that front.
In 2012, we passed a law that makes sure that if you serve your time and try to get a fresh start, Tennessee will give you a clean slate.
Under the new law, if you have one non-violent felony on your record, and you've paid all restitution and penalties, you can have your record wiped clean after five years of good behavior.
We strengthened that law this year with one key change. If you were convicted of multiple felonies – but they were all part of the same crime during one single arrest – they can be combined for the purpose of expungement under the law.
This is not an opportunity for career criminals. By doing it this way, we're giving a second chance to one-time ex-offenders who have proven, after five years of good behavior without committing a crime, that they're ready to contribute to society. They deserve a clean slate.
The Department of Corrections is also doing its part. Its Community Impact Program started last fall and provides reentry assistance to ex-offenders and serves as a resource to the community. They have also updated standards so that those who need more help with reentry will get it, and parole officers are now trained not to assume ex-offenders will re-offend.
The department also runs the Take One initiative, aimed at partnering individual organizations that can agree to mentor just one returning offender and his or her family for one year. This gives faith-based and non-profit groups that can provide encouragement and support a way to help ex-offenders reenter society.
Another program to help our ex-offenders is the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative. The program provides a way to take college courses for credit while serving in prison.
On top of business courses, these offenders are learning computer skills and how to use Microsoft Office while they are still serving their time. A biology course will be added this fall with the use of a virtual lab.
The offenders are grouped into classes of 25 students who take 1-3 courses together each semester. They move through the program together and support one another.
To qualify, offenders must take the ACT test and score at college level, write an essay explaining why they should be in the program, and maintain a 3.0 GPA. They also need to keep a clean record in prison and intend to continue their studies upon release.
Since 2012, 88 students have earned college credit in the program, and the average student has a 3.47 GPA.
We all make mistakes, and some mistakes carry a price. If you pay your debt to society, there should be an opportunity to get back on your feet.
Making parole should mean possibility, and Tennessee is making strides in giving ex-offenders the tools they need to succeed.
(State Sen. Reginald Tate represents part of Shelby County in the General Assembly.)