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Book Review: "Illegal to Legal: Business Success for (ex)Criminals, by R.L. Pelshaw"

Illegal to Legal: Business Success for (ex)Criminals, by R.L. Pelshaw (The Pelshaw Group, 2014). 241 pages, $17.50 paperback

Book review by Christopher Zoukis

Criminal justice reform is an issue that has gained significant political and social traction over the last several years. Modest legislative headway is being made on issues such as the over-criminalization of non-violent drug offenders, prison overcrowding and mass incarceration. Some efforts are being made to lower mandatory minimums and shorten sentences. Retroactive changes made by the U.S. Sentencing Commission have resulted in the recent early release of upwards of 6,000 federal prisoners.

Curiously missing from these laudable efforts to reign in our nation’s out-of-control carceral machine is any meaningful discussion of the resulting increase in former prisoners returning to society. After all, shorter sentences, early releases and other efforts to reduce the prison population necessarily mean a greater number of prisoners becoming ex-prisoners. Given the sad state of the often ineffective and permanently overtaxed reentry preparation system currently in place in most jurisdictions, one may wonder: What will keep these newly-released prisoners from returning to a life of crime?

Enter R.L. Pelshaw and his new book, Illegal to Legal: Business Success for (ex)Criminals. Pelshaw, a successful businessman and former federal prisoner, argues that a primary barrier to the ex-prisoner’s successful reentry to society is financial in nature. As Pelshaw puts it, “To stay away from prison and crime, felons and potential felons need a legal way to support themselves and their families.” One is hard-pressed to disagree.

Pelshaw posits that a large portion of the prison population in the United States consists of those convicted of crimes related to an illegal business: The drug trade. He then illustrates quite clearly that many, if not all, of the skills necessary to operate an illegal business are exactly the same as those required in the legal business world. This deceptively simple concept forms the basis for Pelshaw’s practical and informative guide to starting and running a successful business enterprise.

Illegal to Legal is split into two parts. The first half is partly devoted to helping the ex-prisoner isolate and understand their skills, strengths and weaknesses, and how they apply to the legal business world. There is also a chapter that lists hundreds of businesses former prisoners might consider starting, with start-up costs ranging from nothing to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The remainder of the first half details the business planning process and knowledge that new businessmen and women need to know.

The second half of the book provides “success snapshots” of many actual businesses, from landscaping to laundromats, that may appeal to former prisoners. Pelshaw includes useful information about each enterprise, such as training or licensing requirements, as well as the actual story of the business owner. Several forms are included in the appendix of the book, such as a “Business Plan Checklist” as well as a sample business plan.

Illegal to Legal is both a motivational and practical read. The process of going from prisoner to law-abiding citizen is a difficult one, and the resources to assist with this transition are limited and overburdened. Former prisoners will find this to be a valuable and useful guide to operating a legal business and not becoming another recidivism statistic. For those who want to learn how to spread their entrepreneurial wings, this book will help them fly.

Illegal to Legal: Business Success for (ex)Criminals is available on or from

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