Wednesday, November 25, 2009

College and the Former Inmate

The spartan dorm room where Mario Rocha spent his first semester at George Washington University felt a little like solitary confinement.
He should know. He once spent a summer in solitary confinement.

In some ways, Rocha is a typical student at GWU, where he enrolled in January as a freshman. He has a gift for writing, a new voter registration card and not much experience behind the wheel of an automobile.

But there is one difference. Rocha spent 10 years in juvenile detention and prison after being arrested and then convicted of first-degree murder.


Tales of the wrongfully convicted are now common place. The fact that little is being done to reform the criminal justice system in order to minimize the ultimate injustice should concern everyone. Not only is such an act wrong for the convicted, but the real perpetrator remains free. The harm to the integrity of the criminal justice system is also profound, but the system itself is largely resistant to change or even admitting that a problem exists.

The bright spot of this particular incident is that Mr. Rocha is now free and pursuing a college degree.  But how many convicted inmates, innocent or not, are denied the opportunity to attend college? The research shows that obtaining a college degree is a proven path to reducing future offending.

Each semester I have a few students approach me and let me know that they are either on probation or parole. I feel blessed to have these students in my class.

We need policies that make this opportunity available to a greater number of people. We also need scholarships and support to help former inmates make the transition back into the free world. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it is the pragmatic thing - a college degree is far less expensive than prison and more victims.

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