There's a source of strength hidden within our society that most seem to overlook. Many discount this source of strength, focusing on the past rather than potential. However, hidden in plain sight, all through our society, recovering addicts are making society better for all of us.
Junkies, druggies, methheads, crackheads, tweakers, smackheads, trippers, whatever you've called them in the past, when they start the process of recovery, they are taking a journey more difficult than most of us will ever understand.
However, the strength and determination it takes to make that journey successfully and continue sobriety is largely ignored. Those with felony convictions can find it very difficult to find employment and even a place to rent. We shut out those in society whom we should be welcoming back in; more disturbingly, we ignore the value that their life experience can add to our lives and small businesses.
When I worked in corrections, I would always tell people, "I know more felons than you do, but you know more felons than you think you do."
This comment often gives people a moment of pause. The barista who always remembers your order and seems to work seven days a week between that and another job, the guy at the dry cleaner, and various other people we interact with throughout the day all have a past that we know nothing about -- just as we all do. Those with addiction in their past, who have conquered it and are now struggling to get by, even at a young age, have learned more in their life experience than many ever will.
There are many things we can do to harness this power and use it to improve society. There are the complicated measures like the "ban the box" law, which makes it illegal to ask someone if they are a felon until they make it to an interview, and tax credits for employers who hire those with criminal convictions, as well as other programs. However, more important is changing our attitudes: Shake their hand, welcome them into society and make sure they know they don't have to be outcasts.
We all have demons, we all struggle with something, and we all have unique past experiences that lead us to where we are. I believe that we cannot judge one person better than another, even if we can judge their actions. Some people do not deserve a second chance in society: They should stay in prison forever; on that, there could be little argument. However, more than 80 percent of felons will be released back into society; for those who have served their time, are in recovery and trying to find success in society, we should extend our hand.
Some programs out there can help. The federal government offers the Work Opportunity Tax Credit Program to provide tax credits for hiring people in many different target groups, including "a person convicted of a felony under any state or federal law and hired within one year of conviction or release from prison." For employers who are a bit leery about hiring ex-offenders, the state of Alaska also provides the Fidelity Bonding Program. This program offers insurance for six months against "any job-related theft, forgery, larceny or embezzlement by the employee that might occur on or away from the work facility." The program is offered at no cost to the employer or employee.
The benefits to hiring those in recovery go far beyond these programs, though. Many employers who have hired these men and women have learned how the dedication and hard work that go into recovery can translate well into their business. Many of these folks will tell you that the ex-offenders are some of the hardest workers they have ever had. These folks don't live in a vacuum. They have children, families, pets and all the dreams and desires that you and I have.
There's something to be said for those who have been to the depths of hell and come back. They return with the strength and knowledge of their experiences along the way -- experiences none of us could ever imagine. While some bring their knowledge and experience from academia, those who have battled addiction have a hidden brilliance that we should stop taking for granted.
The benefits are overwhelming and definitely outweigh any risks involved. Welcoming these recovering addicts back into society will give many employers a welcome surprise -- hard-working employees who have a unique outlook and a wealth of diversity in life experiences.
Mike Dingman is a fifth-generation Alaskan born and raised in Anchorage. He is a former UAA student body president and has worked, studied and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late '?90s. Email him at email@example.com.
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