Returning citizens are often stigmatized by negative perceptions and myths. The misconceptions and fears associated with reentering society can influence the success of a returning citizen.
To enact change in our communities for returning citizens, more community members need to better understand incarceration, criminal records, and the common reasons why people become involved with the law. The goal is for returning citizens to live in inclusive environments regardless of their past indiscretions.
Unfortunately too much misinformation and misunderstandings exists on reentry. Dismantling these myths can help to create more spaces for successful reentry to occur. By learning and practicing empathy, residents can help returning citizens succeed, reduce crime rates, create stronger families and better strengthen existing communities.
Myth 1: Once you are incarcerated, you will commit another crime.
The assumption that every returning citizen will repeat criminal behavior is inaccurate. According to researchers at The Sentencing Project, “People convicted of homicide and other crimes of violence rarely commit new crimes of violence after release from long-term imprisonment.” Statistics do report that there are small populations of formerly incarcerated individuals who are reconvicted. Fortunately, that number is slowly decreasing. With community support and fair opportunity, returning citizens can be guided to make the best decisions—ones that don't lead back to crime.
Myth 2: Incarceration means you’ve committed a crime.
Despite popular believe, many innocent people are arrested and kept in jail until their trial. Many are found innocent of the crimes of which they were accused. Social inadequacies in the bail system prevent many low-income individuals from posting bail. Having a record of incarceration reduces the chances for these individuals to obtain employment and housing, despite the fact that many may have been falsely accused or found innocent of the charges.
Myth 3: Reentry is only successful if you find a job and housing by yourself.
Reentry is the act of reintegrating back into society and is a long process filled with successes and failures. Doing it on your own can be a stressful, and sometimes, impossible task. Reentry councils provide financial and social support for those trying to assimilate back into society. The support is a reassuring reminder to returning citizens that they are not alone.
Myth 4: A returning citizen is dangerous and will endanger those around them.
Some people who return from prison were charged with a non-violent crime. When we think a returning citizen is dangerous solely based on the fact that they were incarcerated, we are unfairly judging them. We must not believe that all returning citizens will endanger us because of their prior choices. Successful reentry means changed behavior for better life outcomes. Many returning citizens are as productive and kind as our other neighbors, and they deserve the same opportunities after they’ve completed serving their time.
Myth 5: Returning citizens are not likely to make a difference in their community.
The goal for many returning citizens is to create a better their life. To restrict the potential achievements of a returning citizen creates division and weakens our communities. The shaming of returning citizens must stop. Returning citizens who reenter successfully build stronger families, act as mentors to other struggling adults and youth, and contribute to our economy. Phyllis “Grandma” Hardy and James Twine are two examples of returning citizens who are making positive contributions to their communities despite their previous circumstances.
We are responsible for educating ourselves about returning citizens, but much more work is necessary to advocate for successful reentry. Consider volunteering at your local reentry council and encourage your employer to hire a returning citizen.
Kelley Traynham is a writer in the North Carolina Community Action Association’s
Fellows Program. NCCAA Fellows are students or recent graduates pursuing a career in communications, graphic design, IT, public policy or a related field. They receive a stipend for their participation in the program. For more information on the NCCAA Fellows Program, please contact Yvette Ruffin, NCCAA, chief communications officer.