My past columns have mentioned focusing on the 4 Es: Economics, Employment, Education and Ex-Offenders as our most important issues as individuals. If we solve the 4Es throughout our community, 95 percent of the problems we face can be solved. My last column addressed the issue of Education. We are now at the very sensitive issue of Ex-Offenders.

This column has been the hardest I have ever written. I am not one to coddle criminals. I want law and order like anyone else. I want to be able to walk the sidewalks and drive down the streets without fear of gunshots and bullets. Yet, I also know the catch-22 of our people who get caught up in the criminal justice system. Otherwise we wouldn’t have had 13 death row inmates FREED in Illinois and more than 90 others in the country.

“Ex-Offender” is neither a term to celebrate or denigrate. As I pondered what to write, I did what I do best: I called on the spirits of the ancestors to guide me and I prayed to God for an answer. And then it came to me as I was reminded of a favorite quote from Malcolm X: “To have once been a criminal is not the disgrace. To remain a criminal is the disgrace.” I then had the answer and direction for this column.

We know economics can help us solve our problems. We know employment can solve our problems. We know education can solve our problems. So if our offenders had access to all three of those problem solvers, could their problems be solved? Yes, and here is how we can do it.

First, everyone needs to understand that a person in jail is there because they are awaiting trial. They are in jail because they couldn’t post bond or were denied bond. Jail is a holding state of incarceration. Prison is where one goes to serve the sentence that has been handed down.

The reason why I am pointing out the distinction is that as a society we cannot force those in jail to be educated. In fact, those in jail can vote. So for them, access to education should be an option; but one with the knowledge that as a society we have demanded that those who go to prison must get an education while there. That’s right. No longer should we permit an individual to be incarcerated for 5 years and they can’t read. No longer can they go to prison and not learn a skill, since many of the individuals who do end up in the criminal justice system have the least amount of education. Can we make “forced education” a deterrent to crime?

Here’s how it can go. Let’s say you dropped out of school in the ninth grade. You are picked up for selling drugs. While in jail you are offered the opportunity to earn your GED. Turn down the class and know that it will affect your sentence. In fact, just like in the days where people got time off for “good behavior” we can offer the same thing for “education and skill training”. So a decision has to be made. You can choose to begin earning your GED or learning a skill now, or wait for the sentence with the mandatory educational component attached.

With a GED, your sentence for the crime will be two years. Or if you opt out and choose not to begin learning, once you go to trial and are found guilty, your sentence will be for 10 years. Yes, let’s help them in their decisions. No longer will going downstate be seen as a chance to have a reunion with your homeboys. Instead, reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic (The 3 R’s) will be mandatory.

All TV programs beamed into the prison and jails will be educational ones. We already have WYCC Channel 20. We have the Discovery Channel and the History Channel, for example. The only entertainment available will be on those channels. Imagine being in a cell and the only thing on TV is a discussion on molecular biology or quantum physics on the Science Channel.

Every inmate will have to watch documentaries on slavery, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement. Every inmate must learn a skill. If an inmate refuses to learn, then that inmate is requesting an automatic extension on his/her time; as the criminal justice system will not release back into society someone who doesn’t know more than when he/she first went in.

The bottom line is that we as a society can no longer afford to allow people to become and/or remain criminals. We must make becoming a criminal a choice no one wants to make. As a society the option is to learn at the locations of your choice or if incarcerated, learn at that location. But choosing to not learn is not an option. Choosing to not have skills is not an option. Choosing to not remain a criminal is the only option.

Support candidate (PUNCH 21) LaShawn K. Ford’s referendum to make it easier for ex-offenders to have job opportunities. Vote “YES.”

Solve the 4Es and solve the problems.