Leaders With Criminal Histories Should Be Included in Reform Debate

When tech companies hold panels on diversity consisting entirely of white men, there is an outcry -- and rightly so. And when Congressional hearings on women's reproductive rights are devoid of actual women, the public is similarly aghast.

The reason for this outrage is easy to understand. The people whose lives, careers, and bodies are impacted by these systems should be allowed to speak from direct experience, and are best positioned to guide meaningful decision-making.

So, why is there no uproar when policy decisions on criminal justice don't consider the recommendations of formerly incarcerated people? It's high time that those who have direct experience with mass incarceration get a seat at the table in policy conversations on reform.

As a country, we've finally come to terms with the impact of a 500 per cent increase in our prison population over the last 30 years. There is a bipartisan dialogue about the best ways to tackle the failures of America's criminal justice system. But when the nation's leading politicians and thinkers gather to address these issues, they rarely include the people who will be most impacted by policy shifts, and who bring a valuable perspective -- those who have actually experienced the lifetime consequences of criminal conviction.

Many men and women with criminal history records are leaders actively working to create meaningful change, both behind the bars and once they re-enter society. I know this firsthand -- while I was incarcerated in a New York state correctional facility, I spent time tutoring women in basic adult education and high school equivalency courses. Upon my release, I was eager to find a way to pursue higher education. Through the College and Community Fellowship and the Education from the Inside Out Coalition, I've worked with countless individuals who've similarly turned their lives around and helped their peers to do the same.

Why aren't these men and women seen as experts in their own cause? Sadly, society continues to ostracize the formerly incarcerated and devalue their experiences. The "tough on crime" 1990s didn't just increase our prison populations; it also allowed us to dehumanize people in prison, or those who have a criminal record. We assigned them terms like "felon," "con," and "inmate" and reduced them to their crimes -- regardless of the length of their sentence and whether or not they were expected to re-enter society.

Demonizing incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals permitted us to leave them out of daily American life. Even worse -- we excluded them from conversations about their own fates and continued to punish them with collateral consequences, long after they had served their time. In America, every sentence is a life sentence.

Attitudes are slowly changing and the Obama Administration has taken important steps towards rectifying the mistakes of the past. This July, the Departments of Justice and Education launched a program that would restore Pell Grant access to a select group of incarcerated students. President Obama announced that he would back efforts to "ban the box" for federal job applicants, granting thousands of men and women fair consideration for good paying jobs. And more than 6,000 non-violent individuals are currently re-entering society - the largest number of people released from prison at any moment in history.

But there is still more work to be done. An estimated 2,000 of the 6,000 released will be immediately deported, breaking up families and impacting minor children. And while President Obama's call to "ban the box" for federal employees is a great first step, it must be expanded to Federal Contractors and college applicants to create a broader impact. We need the leadership of those who understand what it means to be incarcerated, to build off this momentum and drive change forward.

Meanwhile, formerly incarcerated leaders are mobilizing. This December, 200 formerly incarcerated men and women from across the Northeast gathered in New York to discuss methods to end mass incarceration, after similar regional conferences held in the South and on the West Coast. They spoke directly and honestly with representatives from the federal government about their personal experiences and stories.

These candid conversations with people who have lived through prison and become leaders in the reform movement are invaluable for shaping criminal justice reform. The more the voices of people with criminal record histories are heard, the harder it will be to silence them -- and the more likely we are to be outraged when they are excluded from conversations that impact their lives. With more than 70 million members of our society living with criminal records, we can't afford to ignore their experiences. Let's open up a seat at the table for these leaders.