Opinion: An opportunity to celebrate second chances

Craig DeRoche

The coronavirus pandemic has been stressful for many Americans. Here in Michigan, we are under a “stay-at-home” order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer until May. We have questions like, “How long will this last?” or “When can I get back to work?” or “What if I lose my house?”

Things will get back to normal at some point. But even then, a large population of Americans — nearly 1 in 3 adults — will still face questions like these. Their concerns stem not from a deadly virus but from unjust legal barriers that need to be removed. 

Approximately 70 million American adults have a criminal record, subjecting them to 44,000 legal restrictions on things like how they can earn a living and where they can reside. These legal restrictions are examples of what’s called “collateral consequences.”

Among other limitations, collateral consequences include the loss or restriction of employment or professional license, eviction from public housing, ineligibility for welfare benefits, and loss of right to serve in the military or sit on a jury. Collateral consequences may also include the loss of parental rights, exclusion from government contracts, and the inability to live in certain places.

A criminal record follows you around long after you've paid your debt to society, DeRoche writes.

As you might imagine, these obstacles make it difficult for a formerly incarcerated person to start living a full and productive life. We tell people who are sentenced to prison that incarceration is how they “pay their debt to society.” When a debt is paid, it has been satisfied, meaning no further payment is needed. For instance, if you had a car loan, you wouldn’t keep making payments after paying it off. So why do we ask returning citizens to keep paying in the form of collateral consequences as if their debt hasn’t already been satisfied? 

I know what it’s like to live in the shadow of a criminal record. I was arrested for violating my probation that resulted from being charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. When I was released, I faced an uncertain future because of my criminal record. I needed someone to give me a second chance. 

What I experienced was miraculous. Numerous people — and in my case, Christians — came forward to help me work my way up and out. I may not be alive today without their help. Every year, hundreds of thousands of prisoners are released into society. And like me, they need a fresh start. Without communities being willing to give returning citizens a second chance, they face a steep road to success. 

I was able to hit the ground running when I was released because I was given a second chance. Not every returning citizen is so fortunate. That’s why I celebrate Second Chance Month — a nationwide campaign every April to unlock second chances for the tens of millions of Americans with a criminal record who have paid their debt to society.

If like me you believe in second chances and want to help open up brighter futures for returning citizens, join me online on April 18 for a special, live prayer event celebrating the potential of people with a criminal history. Let’s declare their dignity together.

Craig DeRoche is senior vice president of advocacy and public policy at Prison Fellowship. He is the former Republican speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives.