Detroit’s exit from bankruptcy did not wipe away all of the city’s problems. It significantly reduced the debt. Yet, Detroit remains challenged in providing resources for its citizens and that includes the majority of the estimated 5,000 citizens returning to Wayne County each year from prison.
Addressing the needs of this population and to help them overcome the social stigma of being referred to as “former inmates” instead of “returning citizens” should be part of the inclusive theme about the city’s comeback.
But is Detroit ready to go the way of Washington, D.C., which in 2008 established a Mayor’s Office of Returning Citizens Affairs? That office, according to the D.C. mayor’s website, brands itself as the central arm in providing resources to returning citizens as a municipal service and is headed by Charles Thornton, an ex-offender who has been successfully rehabilitated.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said the city is not behind the eight ball on this issue and that there is already significant movement for a vibrant re-entry program.
“The Detroit we are building is one where everyone’s contributions are valued and needed, and that extends to our returning citizens. Thousands of returning citizens are coming home to their families and their city, and we need to make sure that there are opportunities here for them, especially jobs,” Duggan said. “Helping returning citizens is not only a priority for the Detroit Employment Solutions Corporation but also a priority of this administration.”
Duggan said he is already getting support from the federal government for a re-entry program for the city.
“We went to Washington and asked them to help our returning citizens. The Obama administration awarded us a $5 million grant to establish a new workforce initiative that in its initial phase will help place 1,500 Detroiters in full-time jobs, including our returning citizens,” Duggan said. “We have partnered with the Michigan Department of Corrections on an effort to train and prepare those who will be released for jobs before they leave so that they can step out of jail or prison and into a job.”
The mayor added, “Our recently approved Municipal ID program will also help returning citizens get back to normal life and we are about to launch Clean Slate, a new program to help ex-offenders get their records expunged so their past mistake won’t continue to be an obstacle for employment.”
Detroit City Councilman Andre Spivey, who represents District 4 which covers the east side of Detroit and is home to many returning citizens, said the city and the larger community should embrace efforts to grant second chances to those who have served time.
“Because returning citizens deserve a second chance we must be intentional about providing the support needed for one to be a productive citizen,” Spivey said. “In order for more returning citizens to contribute to society a collective effort from the faith-based community, business community, government and other social service agencies will need to provide all necessary wrap-around services.”
Carl S. Taylor, a professor of sociology at Michigan State University, whose current project, “The Third City,” highlights the struggles of marginalized groups in society such as the ex-offender population and undocumented immigrants, said all of these groups are treated as “third-class citizens with no voice” and Detroit’s re-entry program has to be done correctly.
“This is beyond the moral issue. It is a smart investment and if done correctly it gives young men skills to get back to the workforce,” Taylor said. “The program has to be well funded and it should include those who have successfully rehabilitated themselves serving as life coaches.”
Taylor, who served on the Michigan Juvenile Justice Committee and also as the principal investigator for the Michigan Gang Research Project, said an effective re-entry program will give Detroit’s returning citizens an opportunity to prove themselves.
“We need to give these young men the opportunity to make a real change and not an artificial change,” Taylor said. “It has to be a real commitment to these guys because society has not embraced them in the past.”
That commitment should also include women who are part of a growing prison population in the nation. An estimated 60 percent of female prisoners in the nation are parents of children under 18, according to the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance, an anti-poverty group. A re-entry program should help these women find employment and support their children.
One of the outcomes of a successful re-entry program, according to Taylor, would be reduction in crime.
“It would help a great deal in public safety,” Taylor said. “It would cut down on fear. This whole thug mindset can be changed.”
The bigger question is whether society will accept these former inmates with open arms.
“It is not merely preparing the returning citizens, it is preparing the community to take them in. If the educated and professional class can’t handle this, then we are in trouble. And that includes religious institutions and the business community. People need to remember that returning citizens are human,” Taylor said.
Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” on Super Station 910-AM at noon Wednesdays and Fridays. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.