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Freedom from Bondage: Amnesty for Substance Use Convictions

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Freedom from Bondage: Amnesty for Substance Use Convictions

I’m beginning this blog in an attempt to assist and address policy makers, those in recovery, and the general public at large about the epidemic that is going on in this country within our criminal justice system.  I am going to be working on a series of articles with the Legal Community to address policy reform questions and options.

We have now a system that is contributing to the death and poverty of many individuals.  Once an individual is arrested for a substance use related incident, that person is immediately convicted to a life sentence.  This sentence extends well beyond a prison cell, although many individuals spend an incredible amount of time there for a medically diagnosed condition called substance use disorder.
The person will have a criminal record that can never be erased and is forever a stain on the reputation of that individual within the community, education system, workplace, and even housing opportunities.  Even if the individual is not convicted, there is no way to erase the arrest, and it will still show up in certain background checks.  There is a whole host of topics I can speak on within the reform movement, but I will be narrowing in on the issue of amnesty for individuals that have substance use related arrests, and the fact that these can follow the person for a lifetime.  This project, tentatively titled Freedom from Bondage, is important as we continue to move towards meaningful reform.

What tools are we giving individuals who have literally lost it all to a substance.  What hope are we giving them?  What message are we sending our children about mercy, and compassion?

The government needs to protect its citizens from the social consequences of our current policies.  These proverbial life sentences that are issued to those arrested and entangled within the criminal justice system cost everyone.  It takes parents away from children, or at the very least, hinders the parent’s ability to provide a substantial amount of support to their children, because in many cases they cannot attain gainful employment.  It takes workers away from companies, by disallowing employment to convicted felons.  A drug user involving pharmaceutical controlled substances will receive a felony conviction for possession of these substances.  By being labeled a felon by society, they are cast to the outside and forever unable to be fully integrated back into their community.  It is no wonder that recovery rates have plummeted over recent decades.

How much more difficult it must be to stay in recovery when your tools for producing a life for yourself, and your family are stripped as you are branded with a scarlet letter.  You may not pursue an education, and you will be eliminated from federal grant money to pursue education for a drug conviction. What tools are we giving individuals who have literally lost it all to a substance.  What hope are we giving them?  What message are we sending our children about mercy, and compassion?  It is the mission of this project to alter the way we treat individuals who have gotten their lives together, and to celebrate those who have survived what is in too many instances, a fatal affliction.
Once an individual has paid the social penalty, whether that be jail time, fines, probation, community service, or restitution, we must mandate that society allows them a fair and just chance to have a life.  It is no longer a nation of opportunity for those who have endured the criminal justice system, and they know at a very core level that their list of possibilities has been shortened and their bright future has been forever dimmed by a behavior that most in our country have been confronted with directly or indirectly.
One of the reasons I am so passionate about this topic is because I am one of those individuals who once had no hope, and has been fortunate enough to find recovery.  I also know what it is like to have your past follow you like a rain cloud, or a monster in a nightmare.  I worked my way from high school dropout to law school, only to be confronted with the fact that for me, I may never be able to reach the same level as those who never had a substance use related arrest.

I was recently denied an internship at a District Attorney’s office because of my criminal background.  I find it ironic that the system that demands repayment of my debt to society, never fully allow the books to be balanced.  It has been years, I have a stellar academic and recovery track record, I have met with officials at some of the highest levels to discuss what can be done to help the suffering individual and community. Yet this is not enough to be afforded a position in which I choose to serve the judicial system.

I write this for them.  I write this for the mother who has to wait tables at three different restaurants while still needing government assistance, but still woke up this morning and thanked God for another day sober.  I write this for the man who was denied a job based on a background check, for a conviction that happened when he was in his early twenties.

Many like me, though, are not been blessed to have the resources and support I have.  I write this for them.  I write this for the mother who has to wait tables at three different restaurants while still needing government assistance, but still woke up this morning and thanked God for another day sober.  I write this for the man who was denied a job based on a background check, for a conviction that happened when he was in his early twenties.  He has to live at home with his mother and work a manual labor position, but is probably one of the most gifted orators and salesman I have ever known.  I especially write this for the ones that take their lives without the opportunity of being heard because they believe their futures to be forever shattered by a disorder that affects over 15% of the population, yet no one wants to acknowledge.  In a lot of ways, this is very similar to the stigma of homosexuality.  Most families have this issue in their immediate environment, yet would never dare of speaking up until it becomes too late to raise their voice.
On top of all this, our system is expensive and inefficient.  It costs our taxpayers billions while killing our fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, and ultimately our communities.  We will never incarcerate or punish our way out of this problem.  It will continue to get worse until we stand up and demand change from our leaders.  Only through recovery and reintegration can we start to heal our nation, which leads the world in incarceration and substances consumed.  It’s obvious that what we are doing is not working.

The South in particular consistently leads the nation in incarceration, yet cuts funding for access to mental health.  This part of the nation is referred to as the Bible Belt.  I wonder if my Southern brothers and sisters have ever read the words contained within the book they clutch so tight.  It is ironic that the language and instructions contained in that book call for grace, forgiveness, and most of all, compassion, yet that is the last thing we show to those who need it the most.

I challenge you get involved, help, support, and assist in the change we so desperately need before we lose more to this insatiable monster that we call addiction. Over the next six months I will be looking for individuals to help me compile these publications and propose solutions to some of the problems I have mentioned.

The task is great.  The reward is even better.  Join me.

Find out more on this project, and other related topics at Southern Recovery Advocacy.

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Person in long-term recovery, who has passionate about criminal justice and recovery policy reform. Currently in Law School at Ole Miss, working on policy reform for recovery in the Deep South. Blessed and Grateful.

joshshorton@yahoo.com

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