By Burke Brownfeld
When I was an Alexandria police officer, I spent my days navigating rough neighborhoods and hunting down wanted felons. I caught the 14-year-old kid who had just shot another teenager in the head, killing him. My partner and I tracked down a man who sodomized his daughter.
But when I reflect back on my time as a cop, the most gratifying parts of the job were not the chases or high-profile arrests. During our regular duties, we often had casual conversations with the men and women whom we transported to jail.
These discussions would lead to the prisoner explaining the struggles of drug addiction or other personal reflections. I noticed that, when we dropped off prisoners at the jail, they often would thank us.
Finally, I stopped one man after he thanked me and asked, “I don’t get it. I just arrested you, what are you thanking me for?” The man replied, “Thank you for treating me like a man.”
That one sentence was the most meaningful moment in my police career.
I realized that during our brief time together, chatting about life, we reached a common understanding. It revealed to me that my role in society was more than locking up criminals. I had been given a chance to reach across the line in the sand and offer a moment of respect and sympathy to my fellow man.
Years later, I have often thought of this brief exchange with the man whom I arrested.
Don’t get me wrong, police work is a necessary and noble profession, and you won’t hear me say that we should stop arresting people. However, I realized that the idea of fighting crime was more than just locking people up and having them serve time.
It dawned on me that we must reach past the seemingly permanent labels of “criminal” and “felon” and think about the next chapter in the lives of these men and women. The end game is not this archaic concept of locking them up and throwing away the key.
In fact, 95 percent of prisoners eventually will be released. When we unlock the cells for these prisoners to rejoin society, what’s in store for them?
I am not implying that all ex-offenders are angels. I have looked into the eyes and fists of a few of the less-angelic bunch. In fact, two-thirds of people who come out of prison will be re-arrested within three years of their release.
No, I am talking about the group of ex-offenders who commit to changing their lives. There are incarcerated people who pursue educational and vocational training programs, with the hope of starting a new life when they re-enter society. This is great news, but society has shown that it’s not quite ready for ex-offenders to live and work among the rest of us.
The reality for the imprisoned population in the United States is that only one in five prisoners will have a job lined up prior to being released. This is unfortunate since we know that there is a strong link between recidivism and unemployment.
We see these men and women standing around, begging for money or shoplifting from our stores.
We walk by them and may whisper under our breath, “Oh, come on, you look healthy. Get a job.” But it’s not that simple.
Many ex-offenders leave prison and apply to dozens of jobs but run into roadblocks and rejection at every turn. Should we be surprised when many of them feel that returning to a life of crime is their only option?
- The writer is a member of the Economic Opportunities Commission of Alexandria and a former police officer. This is the first in a three-part series.