America punishes its criminals harshly. Beyond rapidly rising rates of imprisonment, offenders leave jail or prison only to be subjected to a variety of continuing restrictions, some lasting for life.
In certain cases these restrictions reflect reasonable concerns. Who, for example, would argue that convicted child molesters should be allowed to work in schools or day-care centers?
But many other restrictions on ex-offenders seem aimed more at extending punishment than serving society. Take the Higher Education Act of 1998, which bars ex-felons from eligibility for Pell Grants, the largest type of federal student loans.
How can ex-offenders build better lives for themselves if they are not allowed to compete for the same kinds of educational opportunities as everyone else?
Many of the legal barriers that extend beyond the completion of a prison sentence were adopted by Congress or state governments as part of the "war" on crime and drugs. These include restrictions on occupational licensing that prevent work in many types of jobs; access to public housing and other types of social programs aimed at the poorest Americans, and a variety of political rights (such as the right to vote, to serve on juries and to hold public office).
The unintended consequence of these policies can be to promote the very circumstances that led to crime in the first place.
In fact, with a growing majority of states now making a criminal record public information, ex-offenders are effectively being branded for life. Much of this information is easily accessible through the Internet or from a number of private services.
Politicians point to the cases of murderers, terrorists and serial rapists as the frightening menace that such laws and the profusion of information about offenders protect us from. Yet such violent offenders account for only a tiny fraction of the people being released from prison each year. The majority are non-violent offenders, many convicted for the first time.
Crime policy in recent decades has emphasized harsh punishment over rehabilitation, and the problems of prisoner re-entry have become increasingly difficult to ignore.
The sheer number of Americans ending up in prison is staggering.
Last year alone, more than 600,000 Americans were released from prison. More than 14 million Americans now carry a felony conviction on their records.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, 6 to 10 times higher than that of most European countries. This remarkable number of prisoners has led to growing bipartisan concerns about how to help former offenders reintegrate into their communities.
Even "tough on crime" President Bush included in his most recent State of the Union address a surprising proposal to help ex-inmates. Dubbed the Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative, Bush proposed to spend $300 million over four years to help returning inmates find stable jobs and housing.
"If they can't find work, or a home, or help, they are much more likely to commit crime and return to prison," Bush said.
The president is on the right track. Developing a more-successful
re-entry program would benefit prisoners and their families as well as
increasing public safety. Expanding job training and placement assistance, providing help with transitional housing, and support for counseling services would all help make reintegration much easier and reduce the impetus to return to crime.
But the president's proposal does not go nearly far enough.
Helping ex-inmates find jobs, reconnect with their families and become full citizens requires changes in the laws that prevent them from achieving such goals.
Hundreds of jobs become off-limits to ex-offenders due to bonding or licensure requirements. In many states, for example, a felony conviction prohibits barbers, social workers, optometrists and even car sellers from practicing their trade. Some of the largest sources of stable employment, including the medical industry and the public sector, impose extensive restrictions on people with criminal records.
If the goal is to move offenders from criminal activity to legitimate employment, the proliferation of occupational restrictions serves the wrong purpose.
Aside from the problems of finding steady work, ex-offenders face serious challenges in securing stable housing. According to federal housing policies, all public-housing authorities, Section 8 providers and federally assisted housing programs are permitted or required to deny housing to people with criminal convictions.
Private housing isn't much easier. In addition to the problem convicts have accumulating a down payment or security deposit, many landlords require references and criminal-history information from prospective tenants.
For custodial parents who are sentenced to prison, loss of parental rights becomes an increasingly common form of punishment. Two-thirds of incarcerated women and more than half of incarcerated men are the parents of children younger than 18. These numbers translate into more than 1.5 million children with a parent behind bars.
Family reunification upon release is by no means guaranteed. The 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act, for example, mandates termination of parental rights for children who spend 15 months or more in foster care. With average time served standing at more than 18 months, the threat of permanent family dissolution is very real. Research has shown foster care to be associated with a high risk of juvenile delinquency and criminal activity, so our "protective" policies may themselves be contributing to the next generation of offenders.
Even more alarming, people convicted of public-order offenses, drug crimes and petty theft are thrown in with the most serious criminals in the growing pool of ex-prisoners. In some cases the least serious offenders are the worst off. Special provisions enacted as part of the war on drugs impose restrictions on drug offenders that apply to no other class of criminals. Certain restrictions on cash assistance and food stamps, public-housing eligibility and student loans are targeted at drug offenders.
Finally, millions of ex-offenders are also denied the most basic right of citizenship in a democratic society: the right to vote. While we expect ex-offenders to abide by the law, most states prevent those out on probation or parole from voting, and 14 states prevent some or all ex-offenders from voting for life. These restrictions are ironic considering that almost all ex-offenders are citizens, and the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that no one can be stripped of citizenship because of a criminal offense.
Given the overwhelming problems that ex-offenders face, it is no surprise that recidivism rates (that is, the likelihood of committing further crimes) are so high. The costs for society, both financially and in terms of public safety, are enormous.
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