Rep. Burgess Owens said Congress should take a lesson from the Beehive state in developing the right attitude towards reforming the criminal justice system.

“Utah is a place of empathy,” Owens said. “This is the place where we can make the changes that we’re talking about with criminal justice because we have the heart and we have the ability to articulate what it looks like and examples of what it looks like.” 

Owens drew on his background as someone who grew up in the “deep south” and who went on to win a Super Bowl as a member of the “motley crew” Oakland Raiders, to describe the importance of having a culture of second chances, particularly when it comes to hiring those who have run afoul of the law.

“We are a nation of second chances,” Owens told the Deseret News after.

He said there should be more “opportunities for those who have been in prison, who have made sure they’ve changed their thought process, that want to go out and just have a chance to build their own dreams. And we should be a country that allows that to happen.”

The congressman, who has represented Utah’s 4th Congressional District since 2021, was the final keynote speaker at Tuesday’s Right on Crime employer engagement forum. He spoke before a room of around a hundred business executives, law enforcement officers, formerly incarcerated individuals and community activists who were gathered in The Little America Hotel in Salt Lake City.

Speakers and panelists included Right on Crime’s executive director and former U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman, Mike Mower, a senior advisor to Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, representatives of the Utah Department of Corrections and founders of nonprofits aimed at easing the transition from prison to self-reliance.

“Our hope is to impact each individual state, and this country, in a positive way, providing policy changes, data and research to affect the criminal justice system,” Tolman said at the top of the program. “And one of the most important ways to lower recidivism, to reduce crime in our communities, is also the exact same way that you restore hope in your communities and the fabric and strength of your families, and that is through gainful employment.”

Started as a national campaign of the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation in 2007, Right on Crime supports conservative policies that save taxpayer funds by focusing on reforming offenders and decreasing the likelihood of repeat offenses. The organization has a lobbying and organizing influence in 14 states, including Utah, and hopes to expand to 25 states in coming years.

Tuesday’s event sought to educate local business leaders and those already involved in offender-reentry programs about the “win win” situation that exists when the current labor shortage meets the untapped labor potential of formerly incarcerated individuals who are often discriminated against in hiring processes.

“Utahns face a grave reality when leaving prison. If we expect to reduce crime and create safer communities, we must provide opportunities for redemption,” Katie Stahl, Right On Crime’s Utah Director, said in a statement.

Stahl explained that the forum was intended to bring together “Utah employers with existing public programs, resources, and agencies to bridge the gaps and create opportunities for dependable and engaged employees.” 

While making reference to his time as an Oakland Raider, Owens said the topics being discussed at the forum were his true passion and are what motivated his run for public office in the first place.

“If my legacy is about the NFL, then I’ve failed,” he said. “My legacy should be about education. It’s about giving the next generation the chance to truly live their dreams.”

Owens said he sees education as the most important factor to breaking cycles of recidivism, which is why when he entered office his first priority was to join the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which also oversees the country’s juvenile justice system.

Dave Durocher, The Otherside Academy executive director, shakes hands with Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, at The Dollars and Sense of Second Chance Hiring: A Utah Employer Engagement Forum, hosted by Right on Crime, at the Little America in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Owens’ work as founder of the Utah-based nonprofit Second Chance 4 Youth, which educates young people in employment skills with the goal of putting an end to intergenerational incarceration, was praised by the executive director of The Other Side Academy, David Durocher, who said Owens embodied the concept of second chance hiring because he hired some of the academy’s graduates. And Owens was lauded by Tolman as one of Congress’ few “champions” on the issue of criminal justice reform.

But when asked about specific things he would do in Congress to reform the justice system, Owens said voters were responsible for sending legislators to Washington, D.C., that have “this sense of empathy” and returned the conversation to Utah, emphasizing the need for the state’s penchant for innovation to be applied to criminal justice reform at the local level.

“Utah, there’s no better state that understands what empathy is all about, a second chance with hard work and innovation,” Owens said. “So we can be literally the tip of the spear in terms of criminal (justice) reform, and I look forward to being part of that process.”