With arrest, prosecutions, criminal investigations, sentencing, probation and parole, racial profiling, no contact orders, civil actions like motor vehicle violations, unpaid parking tickets, fines, child support actions, termination of parental rights proceedings which can turn into a loss of freedom, or being a witness, victim or informant in a criminal proceeding, there are an additional 6 to 8 million more under the direct auspices, supervision and control of the criminal justice system.
We make up only 5 percent of the worlds population but 25 percent of the worlds prison population. We have more of our citizens in jail or prison than any country in the world; any country the world has ever known. No dictator or despot in the annuals of history, be it Hitler, Castro, Pol Pot, Stalin, Lenin, or Caligula has imprisoned more of its citizens than America. Each year almost a million offenders are released for prison. Almost two thirds are returned to prison with one to two years of their release. No one has a higher rate of recidivism than America.
Make no mistake abut it the mass incarceration of Americans is intentional. The criminal justice system is nothing if not an instrument of social control and power. What better instrument of power and control than a criminal conviction and the subsequent threat of imprisonment. Moreover, the system is a multiple billion dollar for-profit enterprise. One of the hallmarks of capitalism is repeat business. Nothing is better for the criminal justice system than a high rate of recidivism.
The American Bar Association recently released a study on the affect of a criminal conviction. According to the study there are over 40,000 laws and policies that discriminate against those with a criminal record. This inequity includes but is not limited to being barred from making specific contracts, entering certain professions, receiving college financial aid, public assistance, or public housing, being near schools, churches or playgrounds. Many states have permanently deprived felons of the right to vote.
This prejudice exists even after the ex-offender has paid his/her debt to society, irrespective of whether the ex-offender has been redeemed and last a lifetime. What’s even worse is that this social, political and economic hostility is not limited to those convicted. The mere arrest and/or criminal charge may be enough to deny one a job, a loan or an apartment.
While the continued antagonism towards the ex-offender, may serve some visceral need, is it wise public policy? Is the failure of American society to forgive those who have violated our criminal laws in our best interest? Or is our continued punishment of the ex-offender, even those who no longer offend merely self righteous, spiteful intolerance masquerading as morality/public safety?
If we never forgive the reformed ex offender, if we make it impossible to reentry law abiding society do we not ensure that he or she will re offend? Why should the formerly incarcerated adopt solid middle class values if he faces a lifetime of punishment after he’s already been punished? Ex-offenders cannot help but re-offend if they are denied employment, housing, supportive relationship, political inclusion and the other fundamentals of American life.
One day a young man came to my office begging for help. Having just been released from prison after serving ten years on a drug charge, he was desperate. He complained of not being able to get a job because of his record. He worried about being homeless, having no money, hope or opportunities. His biggest fear was committing another offense and going back to prison.
This is more than a mere intellectual exercise; a detached plea for justice; a statement of public policy. This is personal. I have friends and family who labor under criminal convictions. And while I have never been convicted of a crime, I too am damaged goods.
In 2000 my law partner cheated some clients out of money. And while I had nothing to do with the offense, was not the attorney of record, made no court appearances, did not work on the case, did not negotiate the settlement, did not handle the money, did not see the money, did not learn of the problem until after the fact, consistently counseled my partner to do the right thing and put money in a trust fund thereby ensuring that the clients received a fair settlement, I was there. Thus, the state bar in its infinite wisdom deemed me partially responsible. I was forced to take a public reprimand, a black mark that has cost me dearly.
But while this particular incident is unfair, I am no victim. In the scheme of things there is a rough justice; a shaky balance. I have done far worse in my life for which I have not been punished. Nor is this revelation a plea for sympathy. I am blessed with the skills, knowledge, attitude and support necessary to overcome this challenge, to prosper in spite or maybe because of it.
Others however are not so fortunate. So for those who labor under the burden of a criminal conviction or any other “Scarlett Letter”, let me offer this advice. First, do nothing to make the situation worse. Maintain the moral high ground and do not re-offend no matter how bad it gets. Second, assert ownership over the situation. Take personal responsibility for the matter even if you are did nothing wrong. Thirdly, engage in full disclosure by being the first to mention the subject. Getting it all out in the open takes the sting out of the situation and earns you respect. Next, overcome the situation by doing as much good as you can as often as you can. Finally, use the situation, no matter how painful to learn, to grow, to comprehend, to profit, to “fall up”.
Stated differently, when life gives you lemons, don’t just make lemonade. Start a lemonade business. Finally believe in yourself and never give up. Always remember that life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you deal with it.
CEO and Founder of the Blackacre Policy Forum, LLC