Once a high-powered New Jersey attorney representing the likes of former gang members and accused violent offenders as clients, John Koufos found himself on the other side of the law in 2012.
Pleading guilty to a hit-and-run while driving intoxicated, Koufos was sentenced to six years in prison.
“It was that whole situation that sent me on my path,” said Koufos, who argued a New Jersey Supreme Court case while out on bail. “It was in prison that I learned the whole other side of the system.”
Koufos was paroled in late 2013. Disbarred by the state and unable to continue as a lawyer, he found a second chance as an advocate for former prisoners looking to land on their feet upon re-entry into society. Koufos discovered a newfound dedication to his profession, and with it, a new purpose: Helping those who are incarcerated prepare for their re-entry to society after imprisonment.
Outside of the criminal justice system, people often think of “re-entry” as something that happens to objects and people lost in space. There’s something to that, Koufos observed.
“[Former prisoners] are out in space. They have no idea of how to get back home or how to be productive. And if we don’t do what we need to do, they will commit more crimes,” Koufos said. “And we get to help prevent tomorrow’s victims with today’s interventions. It’s the greatest job in the world.”
While nearly 700,000 Americans will be released from prison in 2018, close to 70 percent are expected to return to prison within five years. Koufos wants to change that, and he sees Safe Streets & Second Chances, a new initiative to overhaul rehabilitation programs and prepare people returning from prison, as a prime catalyst. Supported by Koch Industries and an array of businesses and organizations, Carrie Pettus-Davis, principal researcher of Safe Streets & Second Chances, launched a research effort in Florida, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Texas—with the intention to expand. The program’s initial trial will involve more than 1,000 participants in urban and rural environments. As executive director of Safe Streets & Second Chances, Koufos is continuing his work to redeem the lives of those seeking another chance—including his own.
“To have the opportunity to shape re-entry—for people like me, addicts, or other folks who desperately just wanted a second chance, all over the country—and to do it starting so much earlier in the process was just something I couldn’t turn down,” Koufos said.
Pettus-Davis is leading the data-driven effort, one that she said will lay the foundation for other scholars, policymakers, and community organizations to develop comprehensive re-entry strategies. The program, she said, will initially focus on what research indicates are the five key ingredients to successful re-entry: meaningful work trajectories; effective coping strategies; positive social engagement; healthy thinking patterns, and positive relationships.
“By starting with communities in these areas, we hope to get a variety of situations and models that can better inform our future research,” Pettus-Davis said. “We won’t accomplish everything overnight. It’s going to be a process of trial and error, but we’ll adjust to whatever we discover through our findings.”
Koufos joined Safe Streets & Second Chances from the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, which he helped start in his home state. There, he worked with former Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey to help newly released prisoners find pro bono legal representation, stable jobs, and safe housing. Koufos recruited around 70 pro bono lawyers across the state to clear up old tickets and warrants, allowing people to get to work faster. Between September 2015 and August 2016, 63 percent of 1,200 clients found work, and the recidivism rate held steady at around 20 percent. Now, Koufos wants to replicate and improve upon those results in other states, and soon, on a national scale. He has kept in touch with many individuals he’s helped over the past few years—some have found jobs and stability, while others have continued to struggle. Recalling the story of an old cellmate, a struggling drug addict who had recently relapsed, Koufos paused to reflect on the tenuous nature of recovery and re-entry.
“Once you think you’re out of the woods of addiction, that’s when the woods close in on you,” he said.
It’s those types of stories that fuel Koufos.
Joined by a team of advisers that includes Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries, Koufos sees enormous potential for Safe Streets & Second Chances.
“John’s story is one of personal redemption, and it’s also one that shows what can happen when we decide to give people a real second chance and an opportunity to improve their lives,” Holden said. “We need to amplify the voices of those who are truly seeking their own redemption, and we’ll continue working to eliminate all barriers to opportunity.”
Read another story of how second chances have changed people’s lives.
1. Return to Earth: An Astronaut's View of Coming Home, https://space.com, 2016; Astronaut Scott Kelly on the Devastating Effects Of a Year in Space, https://www.smh.com, 2017.
2. https://niccc.csgjusticecenter.org, 2018.
3. Recidivism Of Prisoners Released In 30 States In 2005: Patterns From 2005 To 2010 - Update. https://www.bjs.gov, 2014.