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In the United States, there are currently 2.2 million people behind bars and 65 million people living with a criminal record. It is an accepted fact that the United States is an outlier in the developed world when it comes to rates of incarceration. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have recently become in favor of reducing the federal prison population. But in order to truly reform the criminal justice system, we must first humanize the individuals who are affected by it and let them have a say in the solution.

 “Returning Citizens” takes place in Southeast Washington, DC – a poor, predominantly African American community where virtually every individual – from the local radio DJ to a programming director for the Mayor’s office – has had some contact with the criminal justice system. The film begins by introducing a tapestry of characters who make up this closely-knit, but deeply troubled neighborhood. Robert, who was recently granted clemency after serving 21 years of a life sentence, just wants to find employment. Lashonia, a mother of two, struggles to rebuild a relationship with her children after being away for 18 years. Gentrification makes it even harder for the subjects to carve a place for themselves and characters both young (Moe, 24) and old (Cheese, 65), express their temptation to go back to the streets in order to make a living for themselves and their families through illegal means.

Over the course of a year, the film follows these individuals as they attempt to put their lives back together. We hear about their upbringings and what led them to crime in the first place. Through those who have successfully turned their lives around, we learn what works and what doesn’t when it comes to rehabilitation. Elders in the community take it upon themselves to reach out to the youth and those who are freshly re-entering, offering them the support and guidance they wish they had been offered themselves.

 Using an observational style, “Returning Citizens” gets on the ground level in a deeply personal way, allowing the individuals and families who have been affected by the criminal justice system to have a voice. The film offers an overarching message of hope and empowerment, demonstrating that change is possible when the right opportunities are presented and providing solutions on how individuals, communities and the government can work together to help reform the criminal justice system.

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