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One foot in the door, one step away from a prison cell

Johnson City Press • Feb 25, 2020 at 5:45 AM

Good Samaritan Industries’ new rehabilitative job training program is a much-needed step for this community.

Far too many formerly incarcerated offenders and former addicts are forced to re-enter society without the life and employment skills and community support necessary to succeed. A lack of opportunity is among the chief reasons felons reoffend and wind up back behind bars. Second chances can be hard to come by, especially for those without adequate education or vocational skills.

Good Samaritan, a faith-based organization known primarily for providing food and clothing for people in need, is working with the local construction industry to offer Free to Live, a yearlong training program. As Senior Reporter Sue Guinn Legg reported in Saturday’s edition, the stated goals are twofold:

• Breaking the cycle of addiction, relapse and recidivism.

• Reversing a labor pool decline impeding the construction industry.

Participants will gain on-the-job experience in carpentry, mechanics, plumbing and electrical skills. Free to Live also will provide mentoring and sober living counseling, as well as spiritual guidance.

This is yet another example of faith communities stepping up to fill a societal void to everyone’s benefit. Far too much of that support falls on their shoulders.

The vast majority of transitional living programs for recently released offenders in Tennessee are either wholly faith-based or supported by ministries in some fashion. Many have waiting lists. Only two approved programs exist in all of Northeast Tennessee.

While Tennessee prisons provide some classes or work programs offering prisoners chances to learn skills — in some cases toward certification — the state is not doing enough toward successful reentry, as evidenced by the number of failures.

It’s in the state’s best interests to facilitate a former inmate’s success. In announcing Free to Live, Good Samaritan Executive Director Aaron Murphy said the average annual cost to incarcerate one person is $26,000 while the statewide recidivism rate is 48%. Half of all people return to incarceration within two years of their releases.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee made reentry programs a major part of his platform when he ran for the office in 2018. Citing experience with his own company, he talked of increasing partnerships between the state and private businesses to provide more training for prisoners before they are released. It’s time for that concept to gain real traction — both with state government and the private sector. The legislature must address this both with state prisons and with county jails. County jails hold about one-fourth of all state prisoners, yet are not afforded the resources for transitional job training.

Our secular institutions have good reason to get involved. By providing the necessary training and experience, they may develop readymade candidates to fill their own employment needs, while raising the skill level of the state’s population as whole and reducing the impact of addiction on the workforce.

It’s also time for secular society to rethink blanket attitudes toward felons. Many companies will not even consider applicants with felony records, even those with nonviolent offenses. Yes, trust is an important factor for employers. They’d be foolish not to give felons necessary scrutiny on a case-by-case basis, but blanket policies only exacerbate the burden on society.

That’s why it’s so significant to see the local construction industry get involved with Good Samaritan’s Free to Live initiative. Other local businesses and industries should take note. So should the state of Tennessee.

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