Can one good person change the world, or is this notion quixotic? Can an idea planted in the mind of a determined individual flower and in blooming become a movement?
Theories supporting rehabilitation of criminal offenders have been ignored since the 1960s, not because they did or didn’t work but because they were inconsistent with political rhetoric.
Every president, Democratic or Republican, since then has talked the talk of the "War on Crime" and walked the walk: law enforcement and corrections budgets exploded while rehabilitation was ignored. When politicians berate criminals, no one speaks on their behalf.
Somehow we’ve forgotten that 98 percent of offenders return to our community. The “enemy” in the War on Crime is neighbors, friends or family, and when offenders return, they somehow must live and support themselves and their families.
Unsurprisingly, this good idea sounds like old-fashioned common sense. My friend Bob tells how he, his siblings and cousins worked on the Bowles ranch alongside his grandfather from the time he was young. The days were long; the pay — under a dollar an hour — short; but the companionship and the lessons learned were life-long. My folks taught a similar philosophy: every day there was work to do and get to because it was important. That’s common sense.
Yet imagine how tough we’ve made it for those with criminal records to find work. When’s the last time you or your company hired someone when they had a criminal record? More likely if you’re in a position to hire, you’ve declined to consider someone if they had any criminal record.
If work is so important, shouldn’t someone try to change that?
Anrico Delray, a federal probation officer and a good man, grew frustrated with the struggles offenders on his caseload faced every day.
Delray told me about “Matt,” a parolee living in a dingy apartment. Matt had no transportation save a bicycle that he somehow managed to ride to probation classes, drug testing and a $10-an-hour job. Yet by the time Matt paid fines, restitution, and past due child support, he didn’t have enough to pay rent. Matt’s destiny seemed clear — return to prison. While he made his own bed, if it’s a jail bed at $28,000 per year, that’s poor policy for all of us.
Delray learned about initiatives to help offenders get jobs after their release, and he decided to tilt at a windmill and change the world. First thing, he became a certified employment specialist, expertly trained to help offenders find jobs or train for a career.
Second, there are good people in the world, and Delray personally met many of them. These meetings resulted in numerous partners, including agents from Utah’s Department of Corrections and more than 15 other public and private partners who joined him in tackling the problem.
Five years later, UDOWD — Utah’s Defendant-Offender Workforce Development task force — has helped over 3,000 former offenders find work and stay out of prison. UDOWD offers job readiness classes, financial incentives and recruits employers to help folks like Matt get out of the hole of poverty and crime, off the dole and back to work.
Delray and his partners discovered that offenders are eager to work because they yearn for the good life that many of us take for granted. Think about it: a person with a criminal record might be the perfect employee for your business.
One personal definition for “hero” is someone whose commitment and hard work — without regard for reward — helps a lot of people. Anrico Delay never sought recognition, a raise or a promotion. He’s just the guy who got the job done of helping people.
Henri Sisneros is a criminal lawyer and justice system leader from Salt Lake City. After graduating from Stanford Law School, he worked as an assistant U.S. attorney and assistant federal defender.