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Do Ex-Offenders Deserve a ‘Second Chance’?

July 12, 200712:00 PM ET
Heard on Tell Me More

There are over two million people behind bars in the US; it’s the highest incarceration rate in the industrialized world. the United States Congress will soon take up the Second Chance Act, two bills which will enable ex-offenders to more easily re-enter society. Charles Benninghoff, of The Rehabilitated Project, explains why he’s advocating for the bill’s success.


I’m Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program: immigrant voices bring fresh perspective to the French Cabinet, NASCAR wants to broaden its appeal, and brainstorming ideas to make the world a better place.

But first, after prison, then what? There are over two million people behind bars in the U.S. It’s the highest incarceration rate in the industrialized world. And after being locked up, it’s often hard for former prisoners to get a job or even a driver’s license. But some officials are considering a different approach, making it easier for ex-offenders to re-establish themselves. They hope it’ll cut down on recidivism.

Congress is considering something called the Second Chance Act. It’s supposed to provide the support. In a few minutes, we’ll talk with a UCLA professor who’s been studying the issue.

But first, Charles Benninghoff. He’s the founder of the Rehabilitated Project, and he’s pushing for passage of the bill. Welcome.

Mr. CHARLES BENNINGHOFF (Founder and Trustee, The Rehabilitated Project): Thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: What’s the Second Chance Act? What would it do?

Mr. BENNINGHOFF: Well, there’s actually two Second Chance Acts. The first Second Chance Act by Congressman Davis is an attempt to fund re-entry programs to facilitate individuals making the transition from incarceration to civil life. The second one is by Congressman Charlie Rangel, which is designed to allow the expungement of criminal records to facilitate their employment.

MARTIN: And you like both bills?

Mr. BENNINGHOFF: Both bills are absolutely crucial to our society, in my opinion.


Mr. BENNINGHOFF: The two million people who are now incarcerated in the United States are only those people in the federal and state prison systems. Another two million – more or less – are locked up also in our jails. And they exit from their incarceration at the rate of 650,000 per year. The system now basically dumps them on the street with a bus ticket and $25.

MARTIN: How did you personally get involved with this issue?

Mr. BENNINGHOFF: I suffered a criminal conviction in 1999. I personally have not suffered nearly as much as others who have gone through the process that I know personally. I began in 2005 to look around for ways to help these individuals. And I decided that there has to be a regimen to follow. The first and most important point is acceptance of responsibility. And based upon that, I developed a series of classes, and these classes are designed to assist people to show concrete steps that they have attempted to rehabilitate themselves.

MARTIN: You’ve said that you suffered a criminal conviction, but isn’t that part of the issue, is that there’s just a sense that people are not willing to fully accept responsibility for their conduct, and they still see themselves as victims? And that’s part of the reason why there’s sort of an attitude of resistance toward giving ex-offenders their privileges back?

Mr. BENNINGHOFF: I think that the reason why there is a resistance is a combination that I call the Gulagariat, which is a combination of our politicians, the criminalization enterprise called our prison complex, and people on the press who constantly glamorize or sensationalize criminal conduct to the point where the public is so alarmed by it that it is an overblown entity.

To the contrary, I believe that most people who have suffered a criminal conviction and who have served their time have a reasonable belief that, in fact, once they re-enter society and prove themselves worthy, they should be allowed to rejoin.

However, I was talking recently to Margie Love, who was a pardon officer for both President Bush one and Clinton, and she basically stated that the word rehabilitation has been excised from at least the federal approach towards incarceration to the point where there are no presidential pardons issued, except to the cohorts of the president. And that happened both under Clinton and currently under Bush.

And in my own home state of California, well, we have a power of pardon here. In the last 10 years, I think four have been granted. So there is no hope of redemption for an ex-offender.

MARTIN: I’m curious about why you chose to be so public about something that just recalls this trauma for you?

Mr. BENNINGHOFF: Because not everyone has the opportunities that I have had for one reason or the other. I believe that when someone is released from their incarceration, they should be provided – have they been previously deprived of a way to make a living. California, for example, and many other states have a system, whereby after a period of years, five or seven, you can go back to court and ask that court for a certificate of rehabilitation. And at that point, that conviction disappears from your criminal record, except for law enforcement purposes.

This system simply does not exist under the federal regimen or in many of the states. This is wrong. The Rehabilitated Project has two goals. First, to help people become rehabilitated themselves by following through our 12 classes. Second, by alerting the people of the United States to the grave injustices that are being perpetrated by this, what I call, the Gulagariat, the institutions that profit from the penalization of our population. This is what has to be changed, and this is what I believe is my duty to attempt to change.

MARTIN: Charles Benninghoff is the founder of The Rehabilitated Project, which aims to restore rights to former inmates. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BENNINGHOFF: You’re most kind to have me.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with Permission.

Published in Charles Benninghoff History Charles Benninghoff News


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