Choices for felons are critical and difficult

The choice a felony offender must make once he or she leaves prison seems simple: either earn a living in an honest, legal way or resort back to crime.  However, a perceived lack of options can compel a felon to make the wrong choice and continue a life of crime, according to justice department officials.

Jatako Scott, who recently earned his GED and will attend Durham Tech in January, helps another student study for her GED. (Staff photo by Caitlin Owens)

Often, a former offender’s age or length of sentence can serve as the deciding factor regarding which choice he or she makes. And sometimes it comes down to who the offender is lucky enough to meet once released from prison.

The court system, the city work force development board, the Durham County Criminal Justice Resource Center and various nonprofits all provide programs to help offenders reintegrate into society after leaving prison. However, sometimes offenders don’t know these options exist, don’t want to put in the work that program participation requires or simply aren’t ready to change, said Gudrun Parmer, director of Durham’s Criminal Justice Resource Center.

“A lot of them don’t know what it takes to become self-sufficient, to live a life that is crime-free and to support themselves,” Parmer said.

On the other hand, some felons are able to discover different options and find ways to escape from a life of crime.

Jatako Scott, 21, was charged with the possession of a firearm, a felony, and sentenced to 25 months in prison when he was 17. He currently participates in the Education, Development, Growth and Employment program, a nonprofit which helps dropouts obtain a GED. He heard about the program through a friend.

Although he said he has not participated in any illegal activity since he was released over a year ago and is working toward earning an education, his record limits his career options.

“I always wanted to be a real estate agent,” Scott said. “And to this day, I still want to be a real estate agent. But my record’s so messed up that I can’t.”

Scott said that the program has given him a second chance. Once he earns his GED, he will receive a free scholarship to the automotive program at Durham Tech.  However, for people not involved in a program like he is, having limited or no career options makes not turning back to crime very difficult.

“We’ve done our time, and now we can’t get a job,” he said. “And what else is there to do but go back to the streets? Nobody’s hiring us, so how can we support our family? How can we get money? That’s why I feel like my record holds me back on a lot because I can’t do nothing. So what other option do people have than go back to jail?”

Offenders under supervision or probation work with their probation officer and the resource center to create a plan for the future. However, 75 percent of felons have no supervision or contact with law enforcement once they leave prison, Parmer said.

“There are absolutely some people that come out and have almost nothing,” she said. “Most likely they didn’t have many resources before they went to prison, or they wouldn’t be in that situation.”

Parmer said that older people and those incarcerated for longer periods of time are often more willing to change than younger people or those with shorter sentences.

She said this is often the case because older offenders have grown “tired of cycling in and out of the system” and younger offenders want “instant gratification,” resulting in a lack of patience and a poor work ethic.

Durham County has high rate of violent crime among youth, according to a 2012 youth and crime community indicator report released by Durham’s gang reduction strategy steering committee. In 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, individuals under the age of 20 committed 18.4 percent of all violent crimes, including homicide, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, theft and arson.

Some youth get arrested before they complete high school and must drop out. The combination of a lack of education and a felony record makes reintegrating into society even more difficult, said Jim Stuit, Durham’s gang reduction strategy manager.

“There’s far fewer who go to prison with a diploma. The more education you have, the less likely you are to get incarcerated and if you have an education, the easier it is when you get out,” he said.