WASHINGTON (AP) — Twenty years after being busted for cocaine trafficking, Daryl Atkinson is the public face of the Justice Department’s efforts to help convicted felons re-enter society.
Atkinson finished college and earned a law degree after spending three and a half years behind bars for his drug crimes. Now, he’s joined the Justice Department as its first-ever Second Chance Fellow, helping develop a re-entry policy that the Obama administration sees as a vital component of its broader effort to reshape the criminal justice system and the handling of nonviolent drug offenders.
Atkinson, 45, is responsible for advising a federal re-entry council that represents more than 20 federal agencies and develops strategies for helping ex-convicts restart their lives. In working to remove common hurdles faced by felons, he says he’s committed to identifying people who, like him, found success after prison and he hopes to feature their collective experiences in an online digital “story bank.”
“We have to fundamentally change the culture about what we think about people who’ve come into contact with the system — and part of that is the human narrative, is the human story,” Atkinson said, adding that he also hopes to dispel stereotypes about those with criminal records: “They don’t have six heads and five arms.”
The department, which is pushing for more reasonable sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, sees the work as especially important given that roughly 600,000 citizens leave state and federal prisons each year and often struggle to find education, housing and jobs.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who oversees the re-entry council, singles out Atkinson’s story in public speeches about the re-entry efforts. The two were in Philadelphia Monday as part of National Re-Entry Week, where Lynch announced a series of measures aimed at helping ex-convicts prepare for life on the outside.
Atkinson’s path to the Justice Department was unconventional, to say the least.
He grew up in Alabama in a family committed to public service, a talented and popular athlete with a wide circle of friends. But after an injury cut short his basketball ambitions at the University of Tennessee, he returned to college in his home state and soon found himself disengaged from school life and dealing drugs. He was caught selling cocaine, pleaded guilty to a state crime and was sentenced to 10 years, later cut short for good behavior. In the process, he learned about the rigid framework governing drug crimes when his lawyer told him that it wouldn’t make any difference if professors or other supporters spoke out on his behalf.
“The mandatory minimum is that if you do x, it’s going to be y, and there was really no ability for a judge” to change that, Atkinson says his lawyer explained to him.
He became inspired by a fellow prisoner to turn his life around and moved in with his mother after his release in 1999 from an Alabama state prison.
Though he was determined to return to college, his criminal background barred him from receiving federal financial student aid and his family pooled resources to help him afford his education. And when it came time to apply to law school, his criminal record kept him from being accepted at all but one — the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis.
“We like to think of ourselves as a nation that’s open to rehabilitation and reformation,” said Mark Osler, a St. Thomas law professor whose time at the school didn’t overlap with Atkinson but who says he is familiar with his story. “It’s a nation of second acts — but sometimes on an individual basis, we’re not so good.”
Atkinson graduated in 2007 in the top third of his class and was the commencement speaker. He stood out among other students for “an unmatched sense of righteous indignation about injustice,” said Artika Tyner, who was one of Atkinson’s supervising attorneys in a family law clinic.
Thomas Mengler, the law school dean at the time, said it was clear when Atkinson applied that he was determined to live a life he’d be proud of.
“I distinctly remember concluding that Daryl had grown greatly from the mistakes of his earlier life and had not repeated them and was trying and succeeding in becoming a contributing member of society,” said Mengler, who is now president of St. Mary’s University in Texas.
Atkinson said it’s important the public pays attention to the issue to prevent hundreds of thousands of ex-convicts from sitting on the sidelines of society.
“This isn’t a blue-or-red problem,” Atkinson said. “This is an American problem that we need to wrap our head around and figure out.”
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