In a second floor classroom of Bronzeville’s Dawson Technical Institute, a man in a brown tweed sports jacket wildly gesticulates to a group of 15 men — some young enough to be in high school, some old enough to be their fathers.
“You know what’s the most important thing to have in the process of restoring your life?” asks Dalton Brown, the speed-talking orator. He pauses. His audience is silent, but engaged. “Aggressive patience,” he answers emphatically, and the class repeats quietly in agreement.
Brown is the founder of the Felony Free Society, an affiliate organization of Transitional Training Services that seeks to reduce crime and recidivism rates by reaching out to at-risk youths while helping ex-offenders, or “returning citizens,” get back on their feet. The nonprofit program is based primarily on mentorship among Brown, the returning citizens and the young men who are statistically likely to become felons.
In Illinois, more than half (51.7 percent) of former inmates in 2004 returned to prison within three years. Among young offenders, that number is even bleaker. According to a 2012 report by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, 91 percent of youths between age 13 and 20 with criminal records were re-arrested within seven years of their release.
The Felony Free Society, formally founded in 2012, has one essential goal — to lower these rates.
Today, Brown addresses both target groups in one of the program’s routine lessons. The 39-year-old construction teacher was never a convicted felon himself, but having grown up in East St. Louis and then the South Side of Chicago, he has seen the cycle play out first hand.
After his uplifting 45-minute lecture, The Chicago Reporter caught up with Brown about the story behind the program, breaking the cycle of recidivism and the challenges in fostering a felony free society.
What is your background?
East St. Louis is one of the roughest neighborhoods in America. I literally had to fight all the time. It was a rough environment and I grew up poor. I have eight siblings and our father was in and out of the house. Eventually we moved to Chicago, to a CHA housing project. I was the oldest boy — I had five younger siblings and a lot of the time, I had to put food on the table. I finished school and went to Alabama A&M, where I majored in education. Then I returned to Chicago to get into the family business in construction and I eventually started teaching at Dawson, which is how I got started with Transitional Training Services, and then eventually the Felony Free Society.
What prompted you to organize the Felony Free Society and how do you envision its purpose?
I have friends who were getting out of jail and couldn’t find jobs, and I was seeing all of this first hand. It was disheartening, you know, to finish hanging out and I’d go back to my job and they’d go back to the streets. So I asked myself, what could I do to help? Make society felony free. And what would that look like? Extremely low crime rates, low recidivism rates and a community where people are responsible, responsive and eager to help each other out.
If we were to stop young men from becoming felons and help those who were once felons, we can bring down the jail population altogether. We’ll usher the youth into college instead of prison. After they graduate, they’ll return to their communities to work as doctors, nurses and politicians. If we can keep that steady influx of youth going to college, it’s a holistic way to restore the entire community.
At the same time, we have to use the returning citizens in the restoration of the community. This is how they will feel like they have a purposes and a reason to be part of the society. Most people who come of prison want to do good. They have ideas but they don’t know how to carry them out. They need someone to help them — I saw that and this whole entire crazy system. So I said, you know what, we can use them to rebuild the community. We use returning citizens, provide services to them, and let them help revitalize their own community.
What is your role in restoring your community as a leader?
I want to change Chicago with this model and this is the reason: I am tired of seeing little boys getting killed, little black and brown boys dying senselessly. I’m looking at this stuff, seeing the guys in their 30s and they’re in this felony gridlock, going in and out the system. I get so depressed by that.
So how can I help? I’ll bring awareness to the felony epidemic.
In terms of de-stigmatizing felons, what kind of policy changes would you like to see?
I will say this about Illinois: It’s probably one of the most returning citizen friendly states you can live in. Here, you can vote if you’re a returning citizen. As far as advocacy goes, we support policies that will help returning citizens be more productive and put them back to work. We support Sen. Van Pelt’s legislation that would give employers tax incentives to employ former felons. The Second Chance Act with Congressman Danny Davis is another piece of very good legislation. But there’s so much more we could do.
What I would like to see is total amnesty for all non-violent offenders – total extermination of their records, if they’ve served their time, let’s either expunge or seal their records. They are not threats to society. I would also like to see a more sensitive stance on allowing returning citizens to work in healthcare and other sectors of our workforce. Like, why couldn’t a nonviolent offender be a fireman?
What is your plan for expanding the Felony Free Society?
Our most concrete plan right now is to do a serious CPS program this summer, eighth through 12th grade. I’ve reached out to the Alternative Schools Network and we talked to principles and counselors. This would be a group speaking engagement with them. What we’re doing now is fundraising so we can implement our first big campaign.
One of our major goals to be able to provide housing to ex-offenders using the returning citizen population. This will allow them the opportunity to learn a trade, give back to the community and, at the same time, steer the younger generation in the right direction using a prevention program on massive scale. Instead of offering a fire-and-brimstone speech to the young individuals, we’ll tell them how much they’ll make after college. Give them the alternative to selling drugs. I want show them that in the long term, if you choose education, you will not only live the life you want to live, but also be able to buy your mom a house.