It seems that media coverage of criminal offenses and irredeemable “criminals” dominates local news, giving a strong impression that crime runs rampant and those who commit crime are incapable of becoming productive members of our community. The truth is far more complicated. Most people commit crime due to a variety of factors including substance-use disorder, mental illness, and past abuse; factors that can be addressed through strong rehabilitation.
Tragically, sensational media stories dampen public support for rehabilitation; and create massive barriers as people with criminal histories try to rejoin society.
Considering these barriers, it is extraordinary when people with past criminal involvement manage to chart a productive life in the community. These stories are not nearly as rare as people think, and they are deserving of the same level of coverage local media grants to the “crime of the week.” A great example is Reginald Smith, who will be graduating from the University of Texas at Austin on Saturday, December 3rd.
Reggie was sentenced to prison five times in his adult life, the last stint for nearly six years. Like many of the people he met while in prison, he struggled with substance-use disorder. Finding limited rehabilitative resources in prison, he continued to struggle each time he was released to stay sober, find a job, and rent a place to live.
Against the odds, Reggie kept working towards recovery from addiction both in prison and out.
After his last time in prison, Reggie connected with the local recovery community. Determined to stay out of prison, he became a house manager at a sober-living home. He stayed sober. He enrolled in the University of Texas to earn his Bachelors in Social Work, and quickly became a leader on campus. He served in the UT Center for Students in Recovery and championed efforts to create opportunity for formerly incarcerated individuals.
Because of his work, Reggie was awarded a fellowship from the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health to advance public policy that will promote substance-use disorder treatment and mental health care to divert people from jail and prison. He is an invited speaker and recognized leader among those with a lived history of mental illness and criminal justice involvement. He is also a mentor to those who are striving for recovery and a productive life despite the stigma and shame of a criminal record.
Reggie graduates Magna Cum Laude with his Bachelors in Social Work this weekend. He was selected by the student body to give the commencement address. His journey inspires countless people who have been discarded by society because of past mistakes.
NOTE: I alerted contacts in both print and visual media about Reggie’s story. As of today, December 2nd, no reporter had picked up the story; so, I decided to post on my blog. I appreciate readers sharing this post with others. Thanks!