There are probably many things that separated former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick’s experiences of the criminal justice and corrections systems from that of the 2.2 million Americans currently incarcerated and the seven million more either awaiting sentencing or serving probation (that’s an astounding 1 in 31 citizens according to a new study by the Pew Center on the Study of the States).
But the Philadelphia Eagles may have offered this high-profile ex-offender the most definitive separator: a second chance. Yes, we can and should question the motives of all involved and the integrity of the deal which has the potential to earn Vick $7 million over the next three years. But given that the shocking number of Americans affected by incarceration is only exacerbated by equally shocking rates of recidivism—conservative estimates by the Bureau of Justice Statistics suggest that 2/3 of prisoners are rearrested within three years of their release—we might do well to lift up the prophetic potential in this situation.
Here’s Eagles Head Coach Andy Reid in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer:
"I'm a believer that as long as people go through the right process, they deserve a second chance. Michael has done that. I've done a tremendous amount of homework on this, and I've followed his progress. He has some great people in his corner, and he has proven that he's on the right track." Reid also admitted that his personal life influenced his strong feelings about Vick, referring to the arrests of his two sons, Britt and Garrett, on drug charges. "I've seen people that are close to me who have had second chances that have taken advantage of those," Reid said. "It's very important that people give them an opportunity to change, so we're doing that with Michael. The other side of that is we're getting one of the best football players in the league."
At least on the former point, Reid is right. Stable employment, formal and informal networks of support, and structures of accountability provide the best defensive line against re-incarceration. The U.S. Bishops say as much in their comprehensive 2000 statement on the prison industrial complex, Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration, where they call for parish mentoring programs “that begin to help offenders prior to their release and assist them in the difficult transition back to the community.” However, many of these supports are unavailable to most ex-offenders, particularly those in Philadelphia where 40,000 prisoners are released into the region each year and well more than half eventually return to prison. The public is just simply not willing to give them a second chance, despite the fact that reducing recividism rates by 10% would save the financially strapped City of Philadelphia $6.8 million a year in jail costs according to Philadelphia’s Consensus Group on Reentry & Reintegration of Adjudicated Offenders. That’s almost as much as Vick’s potential earnings with the Eagles.
Perhaps to answer questions as to the integrity of their commitment to second chances, and not simply a chance at a Super Bowl title, Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles could publicly partner with a variety organizations that are have been employing the city’s estimated 200,000 to 400,000 ex-offenders such as The Mural Arts Program or those who collaborate with the interfaith Philadelphia Leadership Foundation. Or maybe the organization itself could employ less high-profile folks in a variety of positions in the stadium or administrative offices. They’d get far more social capital yardage with that move than they will on the field with Vick.