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 our 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?