Who Deserves a Second Chance?

In February 1999, I was present as my father and others were feted at an awards banquet sponsored by the Bethel AME Church of Amityville, New York. The featured speaker that evening was the infamous Rev. Al Sharpton. Contrary to the way he is usually shown in the media, this Sharpton was erudite and specific about concerns of the black community and what was needed to address those concerns.

He then told a rapt audience about an impending dinner meeting with former New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch. The audience was stunned. Ed Koch is seen in much of the African-American community as a mayor who had been indifferent to blacks of the city at best and downright hostile at worst. Koch, in fact, had Sharpton jailed in 1978 for leading a sit-in at city hall. Some folks in the audience yelled for Sharpton to "watch his back." Sharpton responded that he was empowered by God to meet with Koch and hear what he had to say. "He has prepared a table for me in the presence of mine enemies!" he thundered. It turns out that Koch wanted Sharpton’s help with promoting a proposal for a program he has dubbed the Second Chance.

On its surface the Second Chance proposal is extremely uncomplicated. Once they have completed their sentences, nonviolent drug offenders convicted of felonies could enroll in the program and receive drug treatment, job training, and various educational opportunities. After completing the program—provided they stay away from further trouble for five years—they would have the opportunity to receive executive pardons and have their records expunged.

That cleaning up of an ex-offender’s record is the heart of Koch’s proposal—without which a person with a felony conviction is forever seen as tainted goods. Job training is one thing, but actually getting a job is another altogether. Doors to employment tend to slam shut when an applicant responds in the affirmative to the "Have you ever been convicted" question. Koch’s plan—which he’s trying to sell to whatever government bodies will listen, state or federal—is really about redemption, giving people another shot.

Limited to those who are nonviolent, first-time offenders not convicted of sex crimes, the proposed program would give many people a second chance to make something of their lives and rejoin society as productive citizens. It is also an opportunity to regain the right to vote that is usually forfeited with a felony conviction. Open to everyone regardless of race or gender, the program would have its biggest impact on the young black males who make up the vast majority of drug arrests and convictions.

ONE MIGHT WONDER about Koch’s motivation to undertake the risk of giving people a second chance. Koch (who, it should be noted, went to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1964 to defend voting rights) declares in his soon-to-be-released book I’m Not Done Yet! that his recovery from a stroke in 1987 gave him an indication that "God is not yet finished with me, and I remain relevant."

Koch, for all of his racial realpolitik strategies during his tenure as mayor (which some say set the stage for the racial atmosphere that brought Rudy Giuliani to prominence), has tried for several years to get his Second Chance proposal to the forefront. In a recent article in the Village Voice, Koch explained, "Many of these kids—a lot of them white—who use powder cocaine, get probation....[B]lacks using a cheaper drug, crack cocaine, in less quantity, get a minimum of five years and more. And it is just wrong."

The numbers back him up. Clinton’s drug czar Barry McCaffrey wrote in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine that although blacks make up 15 percent of the reported cocaine users in the United States, they comprise 40 percent of the people charged with powder cocaine violations and 90 percent of crack convictions. Recently the U.S. Senate, in an amendment to a bankruptcy bill, dramatically increased the penalties for powder cocaine sales.

Still, many folks in New York wonder what set Koch on this crusade to restore the rights of convicted felons, and what could move him to join forces with the controversial Sharpton.

Peter Noel wrote in the Village Voice, "Maybe, some argue, he feels guilty about breaking the covenant that liberal Jews are supposed to observe regarding social justice. By forging an alliance with Sharpton and other black activists and speaking out against the repressive policies of the Giuliani administration, Koch has performed what religious Jews call T’shuva. He has repented. He has atoned for his political sins."

Koch and a noted ally, Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, had been unsuccessful in getting the support of black advocacy groups and prominent political leaders. Now, because of his connection to Sharpton, Koch and his Second Chance proposal are getting a well-deserved second chance.

LARRY BELLINGER is assistant editor of Sojourners.

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