Redemption for "Thugs and Gang-Bangers"?

Even while there is bi-partisan agreement that our nation has been guilty of over-incarceration of millions of people who have used marijuana or committed misdemeanors, we have heard many elected officials on both sides of the aisle dismiss "thugs and gangbangers," "drug dealers," and "violent criminals" as worthless. There seems to be acceptance that "thugs and gangbangers" are simply evil human beings who can be dismissed from the human race, locked up, punished, and written off.

Never mind what traumatic childhood experiences they had, or what destructive influences they faced on the streets in America's most hard-pressed communities, or what their true yearnings are for a better life; somehow it is still seen as solely their fault and their responsibility that they have done destructive things. They are hopeless and worthy of nothing but punishment.

Who are they talking about? Sadly, but not surprisingly, this dismissal of "thugs and gangbangers" may be a subconscious code for one more way of rejecting the humanity and justifying the elimination from society of a subgroup of young black and brown men. When someone says "thugs and gangbangers" the white public immediately envisions large numbers of dark-skinned men on the streets, with guns and drugs. We need to address this aspect of our society's deeply rooted racism, and this aspect of its perpetuation through fear.

It is also part of our equally deeply rooted classism and self-righteous judgmentalism. My father, a highly educated lawyer, used to say, "Once a criminal always a criminal." I learned over time, through direct experience with convicted criminals who seized the opportunity to change their lives, how deeply wrong my father was. Poverty and desperation, endless punishment and deprivation, produce criminal behavior. Food, housing, meaningful work, a caring community, and hope for a better world, dissolve criminal behavior.

There is some hope emerging from some corners. President Obama made a positive reference in his recent State of the Union address to "the American who served his time, and dreams of starting over -- and the business owner who gives him that second chance." Newt Gingrich has recently written that "Our Catholic beliefs hold that each person is a child of God and worthy of respect....redemption is available to everyone, no matter what they have done." I find Newt Gingrich's view to be closer to the reality I have witnessed across America than the view of my father. I have seen the reliable redemption of felons through the power of love coupled with opportunity.

Tens of thousands of young men - black, white, Native American, and Latino - who had been convicted of felonies, including a variety of violent crimes as teenagers and young adults, have come through YouthBuild programs in the most poverty-stricken urban and rural communities in America. I have personally met hundreds of them and watched closely their pathways out of the streets, out of poverty, out of violence, out of fear and despair, and into adult responsibility and public service. In YouthBuild they experience a comprehensive set of opportunities that enable them to gain the academic, job, and social skills and credentials they need to get a fresh start in life. They seize the moment and turn their lives around.

Recently, YouthBuild USA released the "Life After Lock-up" report to illustrate that this approach produces reliably strong reductions in recidivism among young adults convicted of crimes.

According to the report, previously convicted YouthBuild students across the country have a reconviction rate of just 11 percent within one year, compared to the comparable national 21-33 percent reconviction rate. Further, a stunningly low one percent recidivism rate has been achieved recently at nine YouthBuild pilot programs that started building relationships with future students inside the walls of prisons, before they were released to YouthBuild. An earlier cost-benefit analysis of YouthBuild's broad impact on youthful offenders by Professor Mark Cohen at Vanderbilt University calculated that reduced recidivism and improved educational outcomes produced a return on investment of at least $7.80 for every dollar spent on the YouthBuild program.

To understand the impact, it helps to think about individual YouthBuild graduates.

Take the experience of Mikey Caban, who was sent to YouthBuild Lawrence in Massachusetts by a judge as part of his probation. Mikey approached it as a game. He would play the game to avoid incarceration. But in his first program interview, the staff counselor talked with him and asked him questions for over an hour, seeming to genuinely care about his life - his past and his future. He couldn't believe it. He left wondering what he had just experienced. His heart was a little bit opened. Mikey joined the program, found more caring adults, turned his life around, and is now, ten years later, happily married, the coach of his son's football team and a respected community leader.

Mike Dean, graduate of YouthBuild Columbus, writes in his book, "What If I had a Father" all about the drama of how he got sucked into the life of drug dealing and gang banging in the streets of Columbus, but then how he climbed out of that life through YouthBuild. While he did terrible things as a dealer, once he was offered an alternative path he seized it and is now a pastor, a married father of four successful children, and the head of his own construction company, serving as a mentor to younger men.

Hundreds of similar stories, recounted in much greater depth, are worthy of national attention. The transformation from "gang banger" to responsible adult is a wonderful and reliable process. The inner heart of goodness and hope is waiting to be touched, to be opened up in safety, to be liberated to express itself. This process is dependent on the power of love and respect, from caring adults and peers, in a safe and opportunity-filled community. It reliably occurs when danger is replaced by safety, isolation by community, rejection by love and respect, despair by opportunity, and defended trauma by healing sharing with attentive and non-judgmental listeners.

We need to understand and nurture this deeper human reality if we are to create a society in which all people can fulfill their highest potential and noblest aspirations. Our public policy discussions need to shift to include the spiritual awareness that under the right conditions redemption, rehabilitation, and reclamation of their inner goodness is possible for everyone.