Beware The Permanent Underclass

A question was posed by W.W. Woodward in  a comment to this post, questioning the impact of the upcoming Heller decision on the rights of “felons”, that merits further discussion.


When does a felon become an ex-felon? Is even a low grade nonviolent felony conviction a life sentence? And, if it is, should it be? Do individuals who, at some time in their lives, have been convicted of a felony not have the right to defend themselves, their homes, and their families?

This question is coming from someone who has been a part of the criminal justice system as a police officer, county sheriff, and correctional officer since 1971.

Mr. Woodward is old enough to remember when we used to say that a person who completed his sentence had “paid his debt to society.”  How quaint that sounds today, like some line by Atticus Finch to Scout.  When is tha last time (other than here) that you heard someone use this archaic phrase? 

The problems with reintegration of former prisoners into society have been discussed, but that’s only one facet of the problem.  Whenever a story about a crime is reported, the alleged perp is always described by his or her prior record.  We applaud the loss of a wide variety of common rights and privileges to ex-cons.  We do everything in our power to make certain that it is difficult, if not impossible, for “felons” to never find a good job, a decent home, a new life as a law-abiding citizen.  Once a felon, always a felon.

This has got to stop, for the cost it imposes on society is huge and dangerous.  In out zeal to punish, and then punish some more, we are creating a permanent underclass of people who may never be able to rise above the felon status. 

We are constantly inventing new crimes, and elevating old ones from misdemeanors to felonies, in the perpetual “war on crime.”  Our “war on drugs” has done monumental damage to many ordinary people, many poor people, who are caught up in cultural mistakes.  No, not all of them, but many.  We paint them all with the same brush, however, so that the mule who needs to feed her children is treated like the drug kingpin.  The dopey suburban kid who dabbles to have a good time takes the road to perdition instead of Harvard.  And that’s it, their future potential is nil.

Without the hope of having a future with the ability to achieve a modicum of success toward the American dream, we leave this ever-increasing group of human beings without hope.  We put a never-ending series of stumbling blocks in their, way, refusing to allow them to move forward.  They have no vested interest in society because society offers them nothing for their future.  You want to stop recidivism?  Give them a decent job, a decent education, a real future.  Give them a reason to be a contributing member of society.  Shut them out and what do they have left?

Then turn to one of the most dangerous of all notions to find widespread acceptance in America, Jessica’s Law.  At present, 42 states have passed some version of a law to require the registration of sex offenders, and limit where they can live, work and breath.  To answer Mr. Woodward’s question, anyone who is subject to Jessica’s Law is given a life sentence.  They will forever be a pariah.  They can never leave it behind them.  Even when the laws allow for removal from the registry after a long period of time, their lives will be molded by the miserable circumstances and stigma of being a registered sex offender forever.

As regular readers know, I’m no defender of people who sexually attack children.  But the simplistic discussion of sex offenders and their registration too often stops with the worst of the worst, ignoring the ridiculously overbroad inclusion of people who are hardly sex offenders as we think of them.  Of the 18 year old convicted of statutory rape of his 16 year old girlfriend, who he later marries.  He may receive probation, but little did he realize that this meant the lose of any future at a decent job. 

Just as opening our asylums a generation ago created an unanticipated underclass of mentally ill homeless, we’ve now driven sex offenders into the streets as no one will house them and no one will accept them living near them.  I can understand the NIMBY fears, but I also understand that this exacerbates a bad situation.  For those designated “sex offender” who don’t deserve it, we have ruined their lives.  For those who fall within the intended group, we are no safer with them roaming the street than living in a home and holding down a job.  To the extent that we hope to stop recidivism, we eliminate the deterrent affect by precluding them from becoming vested in a law-abiding society.  What have we accomplished?

This is all about manufactured fear of crime.  Yes, specific instances can be horrible, but crime has been  dropping significantly while the heated rhetoric goes on unabated.  If we continue down this path, creating a permanent underclass with no vested interest in law-abiding society, we will create crime for us and misery for them.  With nowhere else to turn, what should we expect? 

11 comments on “Beware The Permanent Underclass

  1. ECS

    It’s not only repeat felons who have served significant prison time who are now being summarily excluded from consideration for jobs and housing.

    Since 9/11 there’s been an explosion in the number of “background check” companies and internet-accessible court databases.

    John Q. Citizen, who may have a single misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor conviction from years ago is suddenly finding out that he’s no longer allowed to “get past his past” anymore, and is now experiencing increasing difficulty obtaining employment and keeping jobs because of a long-ago criminal past.

    Even people with a non-felony, long-ago criminal past are discovering that once their info has been absorbed into a private database that even if a court seals the file or “vacates” the conviction that this is meaningless because private databases are not required to update or redact the info.

    There is also a growing problem with private database companies wrongly associating people with criminals that have the same last name, or refusing to correct their records when an ID theft has occurred.

    I’m appalled that our courts publish information onto the internet and that private companies are allowed to compile, retain and sell this information.

    A lot of people are being hurt, and will continue to be hurt by the court’s conflation of concepts of open government and Sunshine Laws concerning judicial proceedings with the public’s vaunted “absolute right to know” anything about anybody on demand.

    This conflation is used to justify free access by the public to infomration and to justify internet publication of a criminal history (regardless from how long ago or how de minimus the incident was).

    We now have a situation where even parking tickets from 10 and 20 years and even juvenile records that were purportedly sealed are finding their way into these private databases and onto the internet.

    The obvious outcome of such absolutism by the courts is a “wink and nod” abdication of its express authority and responsibility for evaluating character and determining and handling proper punishment of a criminal defendant in favor of allowing the public at large to repeatedly do so, long after a criminal defendant has already been punished and is purportedly “free of all penalties and disabilities.”

  2. mslgw

    Regulatory legislation is nothing more than segregation without constitutional protections. However, when you deny one, you deny all.

  3. Justadadathome

    Big Business.
    Politicians, Sheriffs, State Police, Prisons, Jails, all the support Industries, and Psychologists, Psychologists, everyone is making money.. Now, add to that, Electronic Monitoring Devices, More Computers, Web hosting, Web Designers, … the list goes on.

    Bigger Government, Totalitarian Government, all going around like Schindler’s List…
    Today, This is all you need to be a Registered Sex Offender for the REST OF YOUR LIFE:
    You are 15 years old, you touch the privates of a girl under 13.

    You Chat online to a girl, for months, or 1 time, she says she is 19, you talk sex… all of a sudden you are in jail, as she is only 15.

    You had sex with a girl of 15 when you were 18, you got probation. That was 30 years ago. You have not done anything like that again. No more arrests.

    You are 10 years old. You have a tree house and you play their all the time with your friends. You start experimenting with sex with a friend.

    You have a computer. It has internet connection. Your son or daughter uses it one day, without your permission and goes to My Space and looks at some photos of some other teens. Teens who just happen to post some nude photos of themselves… the teens are only 13. You have no idea the photos are on your computer. One day, a friend uses your computer to look something up, and sees the photos, turns you in to the police.
    YOU ARE GOING TO PRISON! YOU WILL BE A LIFETIME SEX OFFENDER!

    All of the above can land you on the Sex Offender Registry for THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.
    No matter how old you are.
    No matter how many years ago your crime was.

    Unless, here is the only way out of this nightmare.
    You have to be a Government Official, Judge, Police Officer, or Son or Daughter of one of the above… then and only then will you walk away from the nightmare in a few years. You will get a normal life back.

    The rest of the poor unfortunates above will be hounded, restricted, registered, watched, punished, charged tons of money , castrated, and possibly put in PRISON, if Bobby Jindal has his way, for simply failure to adhere to any new form of legislation which any FOOLISH IDIOT who has gotten a Bill passed through the legislature.

    This can happen to YOU!!!

    You think it cannot? It is happening every day! Come read some of the stories, listen to some of the victims of our Just Us Legal System. It is not Justice, it is Just Us, Just Us are going to prison, while Legislatures vote to raise their own pay, rent prostitutes and have sex with their Little Boy Interns… and Never get prosecuted.. Read those stories too.

  4. backache

    To the extent that we hope to stop recidivism, we eliminate the deterrent affect by precluding them from becoming vested in a law-abiding society. What have we accomplished?

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