From a Prison Cell to Shaping Re-entry Policy

For 10 years, John Koufos was one of the youngest and most successful criminal defense attorneys in New Jersey. He tried cases involving murder, racketeering, organized crime and gang activity. He even argued a case before the New Jersey Supreme Court.

When he heard he’d won that state Supreme Court argument, he was in a place he never expected he’d be – prison.

In 2011, John was sentenced to six years in state prison for leaving the scene of an accident and hindering apprehension. He had hit and injured a pedestrian while driving drunk. The alcoholism he’d struggled with for most of his life finally culminated in a mistake with heavy consequences.

Reoccurring problems with re-entry

John found himself on the other side of the justice system he’d long been a part of. “I would leave that courthouse, which is where I began my career as a law clerk, I would leave that courthouse in cuffs,” he recalls when telling his story. He was taken to prison where he would serve 17 months before being released on parole.

After release, John faced the harsh realities of incarceration. The bank had foreclosed on his house, he had lost his job and bankruptcy was just around the corner. Making matters even more complicated, while he was behind bars, a warrant had been issued for John’s arrest due to the grass in his front yard being too high. Of course, it’s hard to mow your lawn when you’re locked up. But John was luckily able to resolve the warrant, find work and a friend to stay with, which is more than can be said for other returning citizens upon release from prison.

“I’d watch guys go out to the halfway house and then get sent right back,” John said, “They either didn’t have ID or they had these old warrants or tickets they didn’t resolve, and the prison didn’t help them resolve.” Because these formerly incarcerated individuals had seemingly insurmountable barriers waiting just outside the prison walls, many had no opportunity for a real second chance at life.

Getting returning citizens back to work

As John started to piece his life back together, he was concerned about all the people he’d seen come right back to prison because of identification issues keeping them from work. “This is the easiest thing in the world to fix if someone would just fix it.”

Over the next few years, John dedicated his life to doing just that. “I had two options in life,” he remembers thinking. “I could just do nothing and not try to fix anything, or I could try to fix what I could.”

With the help of the state of New Jersey, the New Jersey State Bar Association and several re-entry programs and organizations, John built the largest pro-bono re-entry network in the country in “a true public-private partnership.”

Returning citizens use this service to get legal help restoring their driver’s licenses and clearing up old warrants, fines, and tickets. This removes some of the many barriers to work and allows for a clearer path to successful re-entry.

Translating research into positive reforms

John has since brought his talents and knowledge to Right on Crime, where he’s already made an incredible impact leading the Safe Streets and Second Chances project. He’s helping states and organizations around the country improve re-entry programs using independent research from Florida State University’s Institute for Justice Research and Development.

FSU’s research is helping improve public policy at “rapid pace” by identifying barriers that groups like Safe Streets can mobilize on when there is an opportunity. An example is so far has been Kentucky’s identification laws. With the help of Safe Streets, Kentucky has amended its laws, making it easier for returning citizens to secure identification or licenses.

With John’s help, Safe Streets & Second Chances hopes to identify more opportunities like this around the country. By partnering with state governments and local organizations, Safe Streets can draw attention to barriers to successful re-entry such as identification, finding housing, and obtaining a job. Once states understand the obstacles, they can use data and research to inform their policy decisions.

John has come full circle from his time as a criminal defense attorney to now helping those who want a second chance at life. His story serves as an example of the power of second chances.