Dozens attend metro Atlanta community event for prison reform

Dozens attend metro Atlanta community event for prison reform
Published: Nov. 18, 2023 at 11:15 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 18, 2023 at 11:23 PM EST
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Over twenty years ago, Chris Willars says he was sentenced to 144 years in prison.

For good behavior, he only served 17 years.

“I got in the car with a cousin one night, he committed a robbery,” said Willars.

With a criminal record, Willars struggled to find a job. Today, he’s an entrepreneur running his own vocational school.

“It’s difficult when you have to check that box. A lot of times they don’t look at you for the individual you are now versus who you were when you might have taken part in that crime,” he said.

Willars’ story is far from unique.

Dozens filled 404 Sports Bar and Grill in Morrow on Saturday night including non-profits advocating for prison reform, therapists who work with incarcerated people, and those who served time themselves, in a community event called “the hope mixer.”

“Regardless of if you’re behind the jail walls or not, everyone needs just a little bit of hope. Knowing you have people behind you, supporting you,” said Dr. Diana Watley, community organizer for “The Hope Rally.”

Dr. Watley says the event is about networking, whether it’s therapy, housing, education, and more. She wants to provide the resources former offenders need to succeed.

“We need to change how we see them. That they’re still human. That no matter what mistake that has been made that they’re still human,” she said.

James White, who also attended the event, says he spent two years behind bars.

“I’m a testament to what anybody can do. I’m nothing special,” said White.

Today, the Fulton County assistant solicitor general, says education and employment is essential to prevent recidivism.

“It’s more than needed. Second chances are like a must. We must give second chances,” he said.