At a young age, Taneka Davis knew just how hard life could be. At just 15 years of age, she was thrown into a county jail in Pittsburgh amongst hardened adult criminals after being arrested for aggravated assault and reckless endangerment of a bully who had terrorized her for years.
Davis, now 19, spent much of her childhood living in uncertainty, with her drug-addicted parents revolving in and out of prison on a regular basis. It rendered her unable to cope with life. So, she sought out the help of the Pittsburgh Urban League to overcome a tumultuous past and forge a new future.
Sharonda Pitteard, a 21-year-old single mother of two children from Louisville, already had a felony theft conviction under her belt when she arrived on the doorstep of her local Urban League affiliate. Fellow Louisville resident and single mother Ashley Burnley, 18, faced a misdemeanor charge for shoplifting when she passed through the affiliate's doors. Both wanted to get their lives together to serve as better role models for their children.
All three at one point in time represented a class of Black youth described by author Harry J. Holzer as "disconnected" in the National Urban League's The State of Black America 2007.
"They may be incarcerated or on parole or probation; they might be aging out of foster care or still attached to their nuclear families. But, overwhelmingly, they come from low-income families and often grow up in poor and relatively segregated neighborhoods," Holzer wrote.
Now, they're all recent graduates of the National Urban League's Urban Youth Empowerment Program that seeks to give at-risk youth and ex-offenders a second chance.
Compared to their male counterparts, Black women are much less likely to run afoul with the law: 36 in 1,000 are likely to be incarcerated in their lifetimes compared to 285 in 1,000 Black men, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Still, they're seven times as likely as White women to spend time behind bars or on probation.
While women are less likely than men to become entangled in the criminal justice system, they're more likely to have left a child or more behind upon incarceration. According to BJS, 64 percent of female inmates shared the same house with their children before entering the justice system, compared to 44 percent of male inmates.
To date, the UYEP, one of the league's most successful, has helped thousands of "disconnected" and re-entering individuals get second chances at a better life with educational assistance, skills training and on-the-job experience. But, with more than 650,000 ex-offenders – nearly 50 percent of them Black — re-entering society every year, the program barely makes a dent in the problem.
Fortunately, the U.S. House of Representatives seems to be seeing the logic of greater federal investment in programs such as UYEP. In early November, the chamber passed the so-called Second Chance Act, which authorizes more money for efforts to help current and former offenders to get a new lease on life.
The bill also establishes a federal re-entry task force and creates a national clearinghouse of information on re-entry programs as well as expands access to drug-treatment facilities and improves educational services offered. In the words of a New York Times editorial, it would "provide crucial help to people who have paid their debts to society."
As for UYEP graduates Taneka Davis, Sharonda Pitteard and Ashley Burnley, so far so good. Davis enrolled in a criminal justice program at a local university in Pittsburgh and landed a part-time job at a medical center, where she ended up working with the bully she had assaulted years before in a fit of fear. Pitteard is out of the drug treatment program, in her own apartment and is in a post-secondary education program at a local technical college. Her classmate Burnley obtained her GED a month after she entered the UYEP program and is now pursuing her certification in cosmetology with hopes of starting her own business one day.
All are examples of the "disconnected" population who, under the watchful eye of Urban League affiliates, put themselves and, in the case of Pitteard and Burnley, their children, back on the right track.
That is why it is important that our leaders pass the Second Chance Act soon and keep up their commitment to giving at-risk youth and ex-offenders a second chance, if not for the sake of current generations but of future ones. I urge the U.S. Senate to follow the House's lead and pass the legislation swiftly.
Marc Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.