By Wayne Taliaferro
April is National Second Chance Month, a month dedicated to centering the voices, experiences, and promise of people affected by the criminal justice system. It’s a time to unify around the principles of justice, fairness, and redemption. More importantly, it’s a time to recognize how society’s systems and institutions, including those in higher education, have contributed to the lack of first chances for far too many.
We all know that there are grave disparities baked into our nation’s criminal justice system, and the causes and consequences touch millions of people in and out of our jails and prisons. There’s a painful history of racial and economic injustice that remains deeply entrenched. To make matters worse, the same systems that disadvantage certain communities favor others, and higher education is not absolved from this troubling irony.
This is why Second Chance Month is about rethinking all systems, including paths to education beyond high school. As criminal justice reform debates gain momentum, higher education is also examining its role in advancing reform. Ongoing conversations about Pell restoration, program quality, and equal access have become more mainstream and have attracted growing interest from policymakers.
Overall, public opinion is changing. And those of us who work in higher education can all be more thoughtful, humble, and inclusive of those who have been directly impacted.
Over the past several years, Lumina and several of our partners have become more proactive about these issues, because at its best, higher education should be an engine of democracy. Yet for too many people, it is largely inaccessible, unaffordable, and uninviting. The experiences of many low-income students and communities of color tell this story all too well, but it’s especially true for people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system.
It’s a story as American as any. To put it simply, the people with the most to gain face the toughest and most imposed challenges. It’s a damaging reality, and one that we should all take some ownership in disrupting.
Second Chance Month gives us another chance to recognize our shared humanity and rebuild systems that have broken far too many. That doesn’t mean public safety and personal accountability aren’t important issues, but we also can’t use them as scapegoats to not have critical conversations about justice and equity. That includes us in higher education, too. Despite its challenges, higher education continues to afford outsized economic, societal, and civic benefits. During Second Chance Month, let’s commit to making that a promise we can keep for everyone in our community, including those who have been impacted by the criminal justice system.