After Incarceration, A “Life Sentence” Persists

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October 27, 2016; Washington Post

Criminal justice reform is a stubborn subject examined by NPQ on a recurrent basis. The relationship between race and crime in the United States is particularly disturbing and has been the subject of national debate for more than a century. The long-term collateral consequences of imprisonment for individuals, families, and communities are incalculable. Those subject to criminal sanctions face restrictions on employment, housing, voting, and welfare receipt. Even more formal and informal restrictions occur when applying for credit, insurance, and other commonplace necessities. These restrictions also have physical and mental health consequences leading to public safety issues.

The growing American “criminal class” is drawn so predominately from the most disadvantaged groups in American society, understanding this group’s circumstances and needs is necessary to understand and address U.S. social inequalities in general. Joe Davidson, a columnist for the Washington Post, interprets these restrictions placed on felons as being a “life sentence” even after completing incarceration.

There are more than 48,000 prohibitions, mostly among the states, but almost 1,200 at the federal level, according to an American Bar Association database. They form what Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, calls “invisible punishment.”

This everlasting retribution is particularly hard on African Americans. Studies show black people are treated more harshly than white people at every stage of the criminal justice process. To its shame, the United States has less than 5 percent of the planet’s population and but almost 25 percent of the incarcerated. More than a third of the prisoners are black, more than a fifth Hispanic. Every year, more than 600,000 inmates are released, according to the Justice Department, many not realizing that their punishment continues.

The criminal justice statistics are lengthy and staggering. Approximately 100 million U.S. adults40 percent of all U.S. adults—have a criminal record. The U.S. prison population of 2.2 million adults is the largest in the world by a wide margin. According to the U.S. Department of Education, state and local government expenditures on prisons and jails have increased about three times as fast as spending on elementary and secondary education.

Solutions are being sought and tried. Last week, working with the Fortune Society in New York, the Justice Department joined the Department of Housing and Urban Development in filing a statement of interest “arguing that the Fair Housing Act (FHA) requires that landlords who consider criminal records in evaluating prospective tenants do not use overly broad generalizations that disproportionately disqualify people based on a legally protected characteristic, such as race or national origin.”

President Obama joined a growing number of states, cities, and private companies by instructing federal agencies to “ban the box” on job applications by not asking about a job candidate’s criminal record until after the candidate’s job qualifications are considered. The TechHire initiative is another White House effort to help those with criminal records by working with employers and communities and to fast track training like coding boot camps. Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced the REDEEM Act (Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment) legislation that would among other initiatives lift the ban on SNAP and TANF benefits for nonviolent drug offenders.—James Schaffer