Extended sentence: Why prisoners struggle to get back on their feet after incarceration

Posted at 6:13 AM, Feb 06, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-06 16:55:18-05

Going in and out of jail for crimes like robbery, drug trafficking and firearm possession since he was 17, Willie Brown Jr. knows just how a life of crime can keep you caught up in a web.

"I used to think that it would be nice to have a whole bunch of penitentiary numbers, I thought that would give me some kind of street creditability,” he said.

It wasn't until he hit rock bottom that he saw his true need for change.

“You finally look in the mirror and see what everybody else sees. For me, it took my soul to get tired and when that happened it was no looking back, it was no looking back,” Brown said.

But little did he know, rehabilitation and re-entering the community would cost him, a lot.

“All along the way, I didn't realize I'm accumulating all these unpaid fines. It's like being stuck in a merry-go-round," he said.

He's been out of the system for almost three years and just paid off the last of his fines last month.

“There are fees to government agencies, if there had to be an investigation, fees to police," said Melanie Gia Maria, lawyer and social worker, who’s worked with these types of cases for more than 10 years.

Brown racked up more than $5,000. In Ohio, there are more than 51,000 people in prison, some accumulate $35,000 or more in fines.

“How do you even start a job knowing that because of your wages that can take 65 percent of your gross could be left with pennies," said Maria.

Without jobs, and in many cases an education, many of those former prisoners can't pay. For some, they end up on government assistance, like welfare. For others they turn back to a life of crime.

“Unfortunately we see it with some regularity. It can make it difficult for them to have a livelihood," said Charles See, Executive Director for Community Reentry Program at Lutheran Ministries.

Now studying to be a social worker, that cycle Willie Brown told me, is one he's pushing to change and help others move forward.

“It's almost as if you turn a person into a commodity, we need more diverging programs that teach job skills," he said.

The advocacy group Willie is interning for right now is planning on holding a public hearing with the Ohio Transformation fund later this month to figure out possible solutions on this issue to take to Governor Kasich for consideration.