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By Stephanie R. Strong, the founder and executive director of Turn The Page Center For Urban and Adult Development, an ordained elder at Madison Mission Church and Westside Community Church, and lay leader with Faith in Action Action Alabama.

After several of my family members went in and out of prison, I wondered what would keep them from reoffending. My family recently took a major blow when my nephew was incarcerated at 17 years old. All I could think was, what if he were given a second chance or some other alternative sentence. I knew I had to be a part of his community of support throughout his journey.

Over the past seven years I've worked closely with a loved one who received an exorbitant amount of time for a crime which usually calls for a lesser sentence. As I advocated for him, filed legal paperwork, showed up in court, I knew something had to change about how this state does sentencing and incarceration. I exhausted myself—and him—trying to get his sentence reduced. Every road we took was a dead end. The mandatory minimum had to stand.

During that time, I had a nagging thought about what his reentry would look like. I thought about the number of black men incarcerated at an early age and the years they lose while incarcerated. I knew I had to be a part of the solution. I knew I had to do more than just daydream about helping.

In November 2015, I attended the Christian Community Development Association conference in Memphis. I attended the workshop "Engaging the Community in Serving the Formerly Incarcerated." It solidified that I had to start my own reentry program. When I came home from the conference I began planning to start my own. Soon after, I spoke to a parole supervisor who shared with me the greatest needs of those reentering society after being incarcerated. I knew then, I was on the right track.

In January, I received my first referral from the State Board of Probation and Paroles, a 21-year-old man paroled to Madison County. As I listened to his story, I sensed that out of desperation, he made one bad choice, which did not make him fundamentally a bad person. I was a bit nervous, but resolute about coming alongside him. We were in this together.

Six months later he successfully graduated from our program. I was proud of him for the change he made to improve his own life, and in reflection, proud of myself for consistent follow through. I knew in that moment that this unexpected journey I began was meant to be.

The viability of my program speaks of the growing need for assistance during transition of many parolees and probationers. Our program, Turn The Page Center for Urban and Adult Development, assists with logistical support with a concentration on developing the whole person through practices and exercises common to cognitive behavioral therapy. We offer a 12-point personal growth and development plan to help retrain how participants see themselves, with key people in their lives and while living in community with others. We discuss what they see, hear, think and do in the community that surrounds them.

Our Strive to Thrive program also assists with job readiness, educational development, referrals to housing agencies and public-safety awareness. These are the tools that are lacking not just here in Alabama, but across the country. These are the desperately needed tools that reduce recidivism and create a more just society.

As an ordained elder at Madison Mission Church and Westside Community Church, implementing my faith values in this work is important to me. My church communities and I have partnered with Faith in Action Alabama, a faith-based grassroots organization seeking racial and economic justice. FIAA has given me the opportunity to join other faith leaders working to create systemic change. They've helped me better understand that before I can help effect change, I need to understand how to organize, how to listen to people's stories, how to build power, how to mobilize people, how to research, how to network, to collectively effect change and inspire the community to take action.

One such action is the district attorney faith forum with Robert Broussard, which will be held tonight at New Beginnings Christian Church. When the faith community shows up for its community in powerful ways, it lets our elected officials know that citizens recognize there are deeper issues such as redemption and restoration that need to be considered around the issues of mass incarceration and fair sentencing.

The district attorney's office has a major influence in pursuing appropriate sentences that reduce the chance of recidivism. They have the power to improve reentry policies and practices. By seeking alternatives to incarceration and stronger reentry programs, they can help prepare those returning from prison with the opportunity to regain their life while improving public safety.

There is larger work of breaking down systemic barriers that hinder marginalized Alabamians. The yoke of systemic oppression around the necks of young men I see can be broken. This is my heartfelt desire, and I am looking forward to a longstanding commitment to this work and urge our local leaders elected officials to prioritize this work too.

Faith in Action Alabama will host a district attorney forum tonight at at 7 p.m. at New Beginnings Christian Church at 604 Jordan Lane NW, Huntsville. A second forum is scheduled for Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. at Sardis Missionary Baptist Church, 1615 Fourth Court West, Birmingham.

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