The dire consequences of a felony conviction last far longer than a term of years in prison followed by additional years of parole. In addition to those direct punishments, offenders are denied licenses for many jobs, lose their right to vote, and cannot possess guns. (Who knew that Martha Stewart was so dangerous that she is prohibited from owning a gun?)
They are frequently denied parental rights, driver’s licenses, student loans, and residency in public housing. Sex offenders are required to register with the local police, and are often banned from many urban areas. These are called “collateral consequences.”
Dr. Gabriel Chin writes, “For many people convicted of crimes, the most severe and long-lasting effect of conviction is not imprisonment or fine. Rather, it is being subjected to collateral consequences involving the actual or potential loss of civil rights, parental rights, public benefits, and employment opportunities.” Dr. Chin posits that collateral consequences are essentially a reincarnation of the old English concept of “civil death,” which stripped most civil rights from all persons convicted of a crime, and put them outside the law’s protection.
The title of a recent article in the Journal of the American Bar Association sums up the barriers confronting ex-offenders in the United States today, “Ex-offenders face tens of thousands of legal restrictions, bias and limits on their rights.” The article notes that in the last three decades the number of official collateral consequences has expanded significantly. Some experts estimate that today’s ex-offenders could face up to 50,000 legally mandated collateral consequences, including restrictions on housing, employment, public benefits and immigration.
It is important to highlight the impact of these policies on real people. The Center for Urban Pedagogy has compiled the stories of several former offenders and the barriers they faced as they reentered their communities. These stories put a human face on the impact of civil death in our society.
For those interested in seeking executive clemency, a comprehensive resource on the pardon power in all of the states is Collateral Consequences of Criminal Convictions: Law, Policy and Practice, 2012-2013 ed. by Margaret Colgate-Love, Jenny Roberts, and Cecelia Klingele.Fortunately, there are many efforts to reduce or eliminate many of these barriers. Here is a list of successful reforms in the states in 2011-12, and a list of changes to remove barriers to hiring in 2012. The Legal Action Center has issued a new report “Best Practice Standards: The Proper Use of Criminal Records in Hiring.”
The Urban Institute has two excellent resources on reentry: Understanding the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry: Research Findings from Prisoner Reentry Portfolio; and Returning Home: Understanding the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry.
As the number of people released from prison and jail increases steadily, we cannot afford to continue to place barriers in offenders’ paths as they struggle to make the transition successfully. These policies have harmed too many victims, destroyed too many families, overwhelmed too many communities, and wasted too many lives as they repeat the cycle of arrest, incarceration, release and rearrest. We must break this destructive cycle.