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COMMENTARY: Everyone deserves a chance for redemption

In the current system, ex-felons with judgments against them are forced into an underground cash economy to avoid wage garnishment. The other alternatives to generate money to eat and live, are standing on a street corner panhandling, drug dealing and theft.

080622.OP.BP.COMMENTARY
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I have a proposal that will drive my conservative and liberal friends to scratch their heads. When a man or woman is released from prison, forgive all past financial court judgments and let them start fresh.

In the current system, ex-felons with judgments against them are forced into an underground cash economy to avoid wage garnishment. The other alternatives to generate money to eat and live, are standing on a street corner panhandling, drug dealing and theft.

I have this friend, we’ll call Jim, and Jim is currently serving an 11-year sentence in Stillwater — out in six with good behavior. I’ve known Jim and his family for 30 years. I’ve witnessed their chronic homelessness and the cost that goes with it: couch surfing, children lost to foster care, hopelessness and depression. And the spiral down.

Jim spent his childhood between Pine Point on White Earth Nation and the projects in the Twin Cities — had his first brush with the law as a teen gang member. Over the past two decades, I have witnessed Jim cycle through the legal system countless times.

Each time Jim is released, he has been through treatment programs, is clean of drugs and has a positive attitude. And each time, I have witnessed the spiral down.

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The cycle:

  • Release from prison
  • Halfway house
  • Back on street, homeless
  • Unemployment, no one will hire an ex-felon
  • Depression and hopelessness
  • Domestic abuse, drugs, theft, other crimes
  • Arrest, conviction, incarceration

And so, a new cycle begins. One morning a few years ago I was at breakfast sitting next to a retired prosecutor who had no doubt put Jim away more than once. In discussing the situation, the man commented, “Our judicial system is broken.” That statement resonates.
When Jim is on the street homeless, I let him use my address. I receive more letters from Beltrami County Health and Human Services than extended car warranty phone calls. Here is a recent one Jim gave me permission to share:

Note the collection fee for a bill the county must know they will never collect. It begs a larger question: how many million dollars does Beltrami County carry on their books that realistically will never be collected?

Why do I ask that question? Because Jim also owes back child support. If Jim were to get a job after he is released from prison, within five weeks his wages will be garnished.

I do not condone the choices Jim has made with his life, but I believe that every person deserves a chance for redemption. If an ex-felon is given a chance without the threat of wage garnishment, would recidivism drop? Would unemployment, depression, hopelessness, domestic abuse, drug use, theft and other crimes drop?

Let’s take this one step further. If our federal government can house illegal aliens in motels at taxpayer expense, if we give billions to foreign governments, why not consider forgiveness of debt incurred by those least-privileged American citizens who have completed their prison sentences and are dumped back onto the street?

If given a chance, would Jim become a contributing member of society rather than a burden? Would Jim build self-esteem and be a father to his “shorties” that he misses so much while incarcerated?

Wendell Affield, Bemidji, is an author, researcher and memoirist.

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