Cyntoia Brown was granted clemency this month by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. Her case captivated national headlines as yet another example of our broken criminal justice system. In New York, advocates for bail reform sought to free those who were being held for no other reason than being poor. And in Florida, Amendment 4 granted 1.5 million formerly incarcerated people the right to vote.
These and other sweeping reform measures have been occurring across the country in an effort to address the inhumane policies that have governed our criminal justice system and contributed to what we now refer to as mass incarceration.
These issues were not only being discussed by advocates and legislators but also by my students — among the thousands of young people nationwide seeking to understand and improve a system of justice that, in all actuality, has become a failure.
I recently completed my first semester teaching at New York University. The graduate-level course in forensic justice focused on preparing students to create innovative approaches to addressing people with criminal justice involvement — approaches that are meaningful for the court, the community and defendants. I was teaching students how to fight for the person I used to be just a decade ago when I transitioned from prison to the outside world.
I had spent years building a new life, and the last thing I expected was to be offered an opportunity to teach at NYU. Some days, I walked into my classroom basking in the joy of being called professor Coffie. Other days, I would find myself wondering how I had gotten there.
Students discussed the history of the criminal justice system, its impact on communities of color and its cost to the American people. As a professor, my role was to prepare my students to face the challenges and realities of their careers and to inspire them to want to make a difference.
It was during one of our discussions about the possible passage of the FIRST STEP Act that I found myself not only inspired but also hopeful for America’s future and the future of criminal justice reform.
My students agreed that the FIRST STEP Act was necessary, arguing that sentencing reform is the only way to truly address discriminatory practices within the criminal justice system. But they took their argument a step further, questioning what most people don’t. They asked what services were available to assist inmates once they were released — an important issue criminal justice reform fails to address.
Nearly 77 percent of those released are rearrested within five years, according to a National Institute of Justice report. Provisions within the FIRST STEP Act would allocate $375 million in federal funding for job training and education programs in prisons — a good first step, but a more comprehensive and holistic approach will be needed.
I earned my GED in 1993 at Florida’s Marion Correctional Institution, while serving a five-year sentence for possession with intent to sell. I had spent more than 19 years of my life in the cycle of incarceration. In the 1990s, politicians were campaigning on tough-on-crime policies. Millions of young men such as myself knew that meant get tough on blacks. Public sentiment and political dogma, like that of Hillary Clinton at the time, referred to us as “superpredators.” Words such as re-entry and reform were political suicide.
I was 40 years old before I enrolled in an institution of higher learning — Bronx Community College in 2010. After that, I was offered a scholarship to NYU, where I earned a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s.
What got me into and through those programs had much less to do with what I experienced while incarcerated, and everything to do with transitional services and groups that I was fortunate enough to encounter after I was released: College Initiative, an organization that assists formerly incarcerated men with higher education; and The Doe Fund, which helps with job placement, education and housing. A year after graduating from NYU, I was contacted by the coordinator of university programs and asked whether I would consider teaching this course.
The formerly incarcerated should have access to immediate employment opportunities, as well as educational and career training once they re-enter society.
States should develop and implement sound re-entry policies that reduce recidivism rates, promote public safety, and offer offenders opportunities that truly reflect a second chance.
Students aiming to be lawyers and justice reform advocates already get it. I saw that each week when I entered my classroom. I heard the humanity in my students’ voices. They challenged stark contradictions within our criminal justice system. They expressed determination to make a difference.
On the last day of class, one of my students asked me why I was so passionate about this work. I began my answer by revealing my prisoner ID number. I had never divulged that before. I hadn’t even told them I was a former inmate.
Some students stared in amazement. Others shared personal stories of family members and friends who had also been incarcerated. Those students wanted to make a difference for their loved ones. Another moment of inspiration.
The rest of the nation is slowly catching up.
Terrance Coffie is an adjunct professor at New York University, a community affairs liaison for The Doe Fund, a contributing author to “Race, Education and Reintegrating Formerly Incarcerated Citizens,” and the founder of Educate Don’t Incarcerate. He was named the 2017 National Association of Social Workers Alex Rosen Student of the Year.