Commentary: Branded with a number on my name

‘When they let me out of prison, I held my head up high. Determined I would rise above the shame. But no matter where I’m living, the black mark follows me. I’m branded with a number on my name.’ —Merle Haggard

By Scott Reeder 
Illinois Policy

We all have things in our past that we are not proud of and for Merle Haggard it was a felony conviction for armed robbery.

For decades, I’ve loved Haggard’s music. It was the music of the common person. Many of his songs were autobiographical about a man trying to overcome his mistakes.

Haggard, of course, died last week. And like many of his fans I’ve found myself pondering the meaning of the man’s message.

He had a rough time when he was released from San Quentin prison. He started out digging ditches for his brother, an electrical contractor. Like many people leaving the joint, only his family was willing to take a risk on him.

Eventually, his talents were recognized and he rose to become a country music legend. But what if his brother hadn’t taken a risk and offered him a job?

Haggard might well have fallen back into crime and the world would never have benefited from his musical talents.

There are many people in Illinois prisons who have unrealized talents. This perverse system of mass incarceration neither benefits the individual or society.

Today, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, Illinois has the most overcrowded prison system in the U.S. And our nation incarcerates the highest percentage of its citizens of any nation in the world.

Sadly, we’ve got repressive regimes like Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran beat when it comes to locking up our own citizens.

Worse yet, under a trio of Illinois Republican governors – James R. Thompson, Jim Edgar and George Ryan – prisons were billed as economic development.

Under those three, the state radically expanded its prison system. Then down on their luck downstate communities like Galesburg, Hillsboro, Mt. Sterling, Dixon and East Moline became home to prisons under those administrations.

Those communities deserve better and so do those locked behind their gates.

We like to think justice is blind, but it more often favors those who can afford private attorneys and whose backgrounds prosecutors and judges can more readily identify.

A drug-related arrest can land a poor person in prison. But for a middle-class individual, deferred sentences and drug rehabilitation are more often the reality. It’s time we look at alternate sentencing for most non-violent offenders and we should declare the War on Drugs a failure.

I say this to you as a 51-year-old man who has never tasted alcohol or used an illegal drug. I’m not a libertine seeking to indulge more. I’m a realist who sees that the approach we have been taking just isn’t working. Rarely, has a person left prison better than when he or she went in.

But for decades Illinois has spent money on cellblocks, prison guards and watchtowers but largely failed to transform lives of those it locked up.

We need to embrace alternatives to incarceration such as drug rehabilitation, community service, restitution to the victims of crime and home confinement. And for those leaving prison, we need to smooth the way for them to re-enter society.

My former Illinois Policy Institute colleague Bryant Jackson-Green tells me that in Illinois there are at least 118 professions for which government either must or may deny a license to anyone with a felony record.

For example, anyone who aspires to be a barber, boxer, cosmetologist, funeral home director, accountant or roofer, can be turned away by the government long after he or she has served time and paid his or her debt to society. That’s shameful.

How many lives like Merle Haggard’s go unredeemed by a state unwilling to forgive?

Illinois has turned it’s back on those struggling to find a place back in society for far too long. It’s time we offer opportunities, not scorn.

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