When It Comes to Felonies, Every Sentence Is a Life Sentence

The Problem

The U.S. ranks number one in the world for number of people in prison, with nearly seven million in some stage of the criminal justice system. That's an abysmal problem in itself, but there's more. Ex-convicts -- those who have served their sentence in full -- face unfair laws and punishments called collateral consequences that follow them for decades after their official punishment ends.

These laws restrict the civil, social, and economic rights of former criminals, making reintegration into society much more difficult and leading, in part, to a return to criminal activity. Removing some of these burdens would help curb the enormously high recidivism rate in the U.S., which sees 67 percent of people repeat criminal behavior. To put that in perspective, Sweden has a recidivism rate of 35 percent and Japan's is 39 percent.

The Restrictions

Restrictions vary by crime and state, but many are unknown to the public-at-large and unannounced during formal sentencing. In some states, ex-convicts cannot vote, cannot get driver's licenses, cannot adopt children, and are ineligible for food stamps and public housing. In many cases, this isn't just for a few years -- it's for decades or for life. Furthermore, for all the talk of late about unrestricted 2nd amendment rights, federal law forbids convicted felons, no matter their crime, from owning a firearm.

Economically, ex-convicts are often barred from receiving government aid to attend college or obtaining professional licenses necessary to sell real estate or become a stockbroker. Many jurisdictions forbid felons from running for public office or holding public jobs. And most job applications, public and private, require a report of past criminal convictions, for the rest of one's life.

Taken together, a released criminal, who has ostensibly paid her debt to society, may be unable to attend college without government guaranteed loans, keep dinner on the table without food stamps, own said table without government subsidized housing, or find an employer willing to hire her. The result? A return to crime -- be it theft, selling drugs, or anything else necessary to survive. It's a vicious cycle that leads to dangerously high recidivism rates.

Shouldn't They Pay For What They Did?

They already did pay -- by serving the jail, parole, and probation time assigned to them by a jury of their peers. They lost years of their life and much, much more thanks to a tough criminal justice system. All the collateral consequences do is keep a person down and make real success nearly impossible.

And it doesn't just hurt former criminals. This vicious cycle overcrowds our prisons, costs billions, and reduces the number of taxpaying, productive members of society. And if the death penalty fails to deter people from committing crimes, losing the right to vote certainly will not, either. And so, why shoot the U.S. economy and criminal justice system in the foot through these oppressive restrictions? Is it out of fear? Out of a childish desire to punish simply to punish?

It is no mystery why the U.S. has a high level of recidivism, a high incarceration rate, and so many millions of people affected by the criminal justice system. It is broken in 100 ways -- from racism to the privatization of prisons. But the broken system is particularly harmful when it follows former criminals around for life like a storm cloud, creating an underclass of half-citizens, punishing them with arduous restrictions in a misguided and thoroughly debunked endeavor to prevent criminal activity.

What Is Being Done

Michigan provides some hope. It reduced its prison population by 12 percent and closed more than 20 correctional facilities by enacting the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative (MPRI), which seeks to give offenders the tools they need, like employment training, housing assistance, and mentoring in order to return to society as active and successful citizens. And, it has saved a ton of money. Still, curbing these collateral punishments is difficult. Politicians are afraid to look 'soft on crime,' so they drag their feet and keep these damaging punishments in effect.

Right now, states across the country are debating this very issue. Last week, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell restored the voting rights of non violent felons -- a big step towards returning civil liberties to a group long denied them. A petition in New York seeks to pass legislation that will help ex-convicts seal their criminal record, making employment easier to find. Almost assuredly, there are actions being looked at in your area that could benefit from a phone call or letter to an elected official urging them to reconsider these punishments.

There is a human element to this, as well -- which must not be forgotten. Sometimes, good people do bad things. We're not talking about murder or rape -- but rather about people who committed non-violent, first time offenses and are withheld basic societal rights for their whole lives. Collateral consequences affect millions of people, and not just criminals who 'deserve' it. On the contrary, these are people who can and do succeed after a run-in with the law. And ignoring these citizens out of a desire to punish the 'bad guys' and look tough on crime is as inhumane as it is ineffective.