That’s the adjective that first comes to mind when I remember my recent meeting with Jerome Dillard. Jerome is an African-American gentleman; self-confident and at ease in the world. He’s the kind of man who is comfortable talking with the movers and shakers in politics. He has a business-like demeanor, perhaps a bit formal. Jerome is respectful of others, and I’m certain that he demands respect in return.
“Passionate” is the other word that I would use to describe Jerome Dillard. He is passionate about reforming the criminal justice system, and he is optimistic about the chances of that happening. Jerome spoke to me about the success of the Second Chance Act of 2007. He talked about the new bipartisan support in Congress for changing sentencing laws with regards to drug offenses. He mentioned the “ban the box” rules on employment applications, eliminating the need for jobseekers to state if they have a felony record. Jerome praised President Obama for showing clemency to thousands of non-violent drug offenders. Jerome is intensely interested in helping ex-prisoners to successfully re-enter society, and never again return to prison. He cares deeply about ex-prisoners, because he is one.
Jerome has had a colorful life. He grew up in south Chicago just as industry was fleeing the city and unemployment was rising. As a youth he witnessed brutal acts of violence. Over the course of many years, Jerome used a variety of drugs and struggled to escape his dependence on them. He served in the military overseas during the Viet Nam era (1971-1974). Jerome was incarcerated in both federal and state penal institutions for identity theft offenses. He finally got out of prison in 1996, and since then he has stayed clean and he has received help for his depression and PTSD. Most important, Jerome found a purpose for his life. He found that purpose in helping other ex-prisoners to rejoin their communities. He went through hell and made to the other side. Jerome never gave up on himself, and he refuses to give up on other people.
At first glance, it might appear that Jerome and I would have little in common. We have led very different lives, in many ways. However, even during our brief conversation, I found connections. He knows all about chemical dependency. So do I. Jerome experienced intense violence. I didn’t, but my oldest son fought in Iraq and killed people there. My son was also shot in combat. Jerome has dealt with depression and PTSD. My children have the same struggle. Jerome was incarcerated. I have another child who knows firsthand about the courts and the criminal justice system in Wisconsin. Jerome served in the Army. So did I. Oddly enough, we were both stationed in the same city in Germany, although at different times. I suspect that we have more similarities than differences.
Jerome made the comment that the truth in sentencing laws that were passed in the 1990’s decimated the population of young black men in American cities. Jerome described the effects of these laws as a war against young African-American men. While Jerome was still serving time in prison, he saw waves of young black men entering the penal system with sentences of thirty to forty years for drug offenses. He was appalled by what he saw, and this mass incarceration motivated him to seek criminal justice reform later in his life.
As I listened to Jerome, I did some math in my head. I am fifty-eight years old. If I had taken another path when I was a teenager, and if I had been convicted of a crime and sentenced to forty years in prison, what would my life be like now? I would never have gone to college. I would never have flown helicopters in the Army. I would never have met my wife in Germany. I would have no children. I would have no home. I would have no pension.
I would have no life.
Is it even possible for a man to re-enter society after forty years in prison? Would that person even recognize his community? Would his community recognize him?
Jerome believes that ex-prisoners can and should become valuable members of their communities. To make this happen, it is necessary to change laws, and more importantly, change attitudes. Jerome wants to do both. For well over ten years he has worked unceasingly to help ex-prisoners find their place in a society that doesn’t understand or appreciate them. He does this work not just for the ex-prisoners. He does this for society as a whole, because what happens to these ex-prisoners affects the entire community. He does this for the benefit of everyone.