In 1999, Shon Hopwood’s life changed forever.
As the judge’s gavel fell, the then-22-year-old was sentenced to more than a decade in federal prison for his role in five bank robberies.
Last month, Hopwood became a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.
The intervening years are an exceptional story of redemption and rehabilitation rarely seen in a criminal justice system in which more than 75 percent of released inmates are rearrested, according the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
“I had resources that other people did not,” Hopwood said. “It wasn’t just all me. People tend to view my story as pick yourself up by the bootstraps, but it’s really the opposite of that. I had a former solicitor general of the United States as my mentor when I came out of prison. Most people don’t have that. I had a smart and beautiful woman who drove me around to job interviews for three weeks after I got out of prison. Nobody in the halfway house of 80 some guys had that.”
Candidly, and despite his accomplishments, Hopwood said most of the people he was in prison with would likely have similar success if they had been afforded the same opportunities.
As he said, most are not.
“Other people gave me an opportunity for a second chance when there wasn’t a lot in it for them. That made the difference in my story,” he said.
While in prison, Hopwood taught himself the law, filed multiple cases accepted by the U.S. Supreme Court and litigated cases on the federal level.
Despite this, Hopwood’s first job out of prison was washing cars at a dealership, an opportunity that didn’t come without challenges.
“It was 2008. It was the height of the recession. No one was finding work, let alone the guy who spent nearly 10 years in federal prison,” Hopwood said. “I had never been on the internet, had never seen an iPad, had never seen an iPhone or iPod, so I was really hamstrung by that and a lot of other things.
“I was in the halfway house and they told me couldn’t leave to have a weekend visit with my family until after I found a job,” he said. “I couldn’t get a job until I got a bank account. The problem is when I went to get a bank account, the credit agencies had me listed as deceased.”
Hopwood later got a job in the legal field and was accepted into law school.
After completing law school, Hopwood — now more than a decade out from his conviction — had to undergo a six-and-a-half hour review by the Washington state judiciary to determine if he would be eligible to sit for the bar exam and become a lawyer given his criminal record.
Hopwood passed the bar, received a clerkship with a federal judge in Washington, D.C., and later got his teaching job at Georgetown Law.
By nearly every measure, Hopwood is the embodiment of what society hopes for people being released from incarceration.
That hasn’t stopped his conviction from following him, now nearly 20 years later.
“We were denied as recently as two years ago an apartment in Virginia,” Hopwood said. “I said, ‘you know, I’m going to be a lawyer. I’m a law clerk. I’m going to be working for a federal judge in D.C.’ The response was ‘well, I don’t really know what a law clerk is but it doesn’t matter because if you have a felony, we will not rent an apartment to you, period.’”
Hopwood said one of the keys to successful reintegration is providing inmates with skills and training that will help them find jobs when they are released.
“You can’t just warehouse people for a decade and expect them to get out and navigate this,” Hopwood said. “It starts from the moment they enter prison, providing them with job skills and training.”
Hopwood said he had friends who went through a welding program and a machinist program while in prison. All of his friends who went through those programs were able to get jobs upon release.
A recent Manhattan Institute study found access to immediate employment for nonviolent offenders reduced recidivism rates by nearly 20 percent.
Only about 5 percent of people in North Carolina placed in jobs following release from prison were rearrested, compared to a more than 40 percent recidivism rate for the state as a whole.
“The reason (for the high recidivism rates) is if you can’t find a place to live and you can’t find a job, it’s very hard not to go back to selling drugs or whatever it was that got you sent to prison,” Hopwood said. “It’s just really hard for people to do that when you are frozen out of prison and you have no computer skills.
“We want people to succeed when they come back out of prison,” Hopwood said. “If they succeed, they aren’t going to commit new crimes, and that’s what everybody wants. And two, if they succeed, taxpayers are not having to pay to keep them incarcerated and to prosecute them.”
On average, every inmate at Cumberland County Prison costs roughly $67 a day—or nearly $25,000 a year—to incarcerate. This does not include costs to prosecute or provide a public defender.
Pennsylvania is the only state where there is no state funding assistance for indigent defense.
“The Vera Institute calculated the costs to prosecute someone and put them in prison for one year, and it’s about $55,000 when you factor in all the costs,” Hopwood said. “It’s the biggest social welfare program in the United States, but people just don’t think of it that way.”
Roughly 95 percent of all state prison inmates — where the overwhelming majority of prisoners are held — are released at some point, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
“When you take people and you incarcerate them for years and provide them with little or no jobs skills or training for the day they are released,” Hopwood said. “We give them minimal amount of resources, kick people out into the world and expect a miracle. When it doesn’t happen we say ‘they were evil to begin with.’ Most of the people I saw in prison had the capacity to change. They just didn’t have the resources to do it.”