In the first part in our series on the United States Criminal Justice and Legal Systems, we would like to start at an unusual point, life after incarceration. More specifically, life after prison for individuals who have committed felony crimes.
Currently there are approximately 2.3 million Americans incarcerated nationwide. Of the 234 countries in the world, 89 of them have an estimated population less than that of incarcerated persons in the United States. This means that our nation incarcerates 1.25% more of our population than the next greatest country, Russia. Moreover, this is 3.8 times more than Brazil’s, 6 times more than China’s rate, and 24.5 times more than India’s and Nigeria’s (all amongst the world’s most populated countries). If all of this doesn’t spark your interest, consider that a quarter of those incarcerated within the United States haven’t even been convicted or sentenced yet.
A conviction carrying a sentence of incarceration for any more than one year is considered a felony. As of the end of the year 2017 1,273,600 individuals were incarcerated for felonies at state prisons nationwide, while 166,200 were at federal facilities. This constitutes 62% of the overall U.S. incarcerated population, or 1,439,800 people total. At this point you are probably wondering, “Why does this matter to me? I’m not a criminal, nor do I break the law…” Well, here’s the thing, felonies, much like anything else in our society, come in different forms which we sub-classify. Of the four classes of felonies, Class 4 Felonies are the lowest form, yet still consist of serious and often violent crimes; think Aggravated Assault, Manslaughter, or Arson. However, also classified as a Class 4 Felony are crimes such as Drug Possession, Stalking, Perjury, Sexual Assault, and Fraud. In the modern era of omnipresent technology, consider the prevalence of “sexting”, online “cyber-bullying”, or stalking amongst teenagers in your purview. Stop for a moment and contemplate the litany of consequences to follow when 16-year-old you carries out one of these activities, in what you might justify as age/maturity appropriate. Better yet, think about marijuana. Even as marijuana continues to become more accepted across the states, it is still listed as a Schedule I Drug by the federal government. Barring the separate discussion on the totality of marijuana (coming later in 2020), this means that it is still illegal. Possession of any amount can still carry a federal felony charge. Even more baffling is that “Sale of Paraphernalia” carries a 3-year felony charge.
All of this should lead you to contemplate just how easy it is for you, an “average American citizen”, to “catch a charge” on a felony crime, potentially unwittingly. For the sake of this piece, you (a 17-year-old junior at the local high school) have just been incarcerated at the state prison, convicted of possession of child pornography because the parent of your significant other discovered that you and (s)he had been sharing nude pictures and suggestive dialog between you two, and decided to press charges. Unfortunately for you, even though all interactions were consensual and maintained solely between the two of you, (s)he is still a minor and you are now a felon.
Fast forward two years and you are being paroled a year early due to good behavior. You walk out of the front gate to the prison upon your release and are ready to get your life back on track. Here is where the issues start to pile up. As a condition of your early release, you are ordered to weekly check-ins, including mandatory urinalysis with your Parole Officer (PO). The actual conditions of your parole also include certain restrictions and requirements such as: you must maintain at least a part time job, 30 hours per week or more, the entire duration of your parole; you must pay off the remainder of your restitution before the end of your parole; you are not allowed to drink any alcohol, be around any alcohol, handle or maintain any alcohol, or otherwise have any association with alcohol and the sale, manufacture, distribution, or consumption thereof; you must remain within the limits of the county unless explicitly provided a limited-scope exception; and you must now register yourself as a sex offender, taking on all associated restrictions and requirements thereof as well. Read these conditions again and ask yourself how well you think you would manage. And to think, you were charged with a Class 4 Felony, the class that carries the lightest punishments and subsequent constraints of all felonies.
You are now a 19-year-old with a GED (due to not finishing high school because of incarceration) and no relatable skills, forced to figure out how to get a legitimate job and maintain suitable residence with no life experience. Worst of all, you have a double moniker hanging over you everywhere you go; “Felon”, “Sex Offender” …. For the auspices of this article we will set aside the “Sex Offender” label and focus on the one of “Felon”.
As you continue to search for a job, you come to find out that the majority of employers don’t want to have any associations with a “Felon”, therefore your opportunities for meaningful work continue to diminish. You currently live at home with your parents, because no one will rent to someone who is a “Felon” and doesn’t have any job/income. While at your first appointment with your PO you are informed that you must pay for the services your PO provides, and if you don’t it is a violation of your parole which will call for your arrest and return to prison. As a matter of fact, if you fail to meet any of the previously mentioned requirements, or break any of the restrictions placed upon you, that is grounds for your immediate arrest and revocation of parole, sending you right back to prison for the remainder of your initial sentence or longer. Add to this the fact that your PO can and will check on you at any time, day or night, and at any location, even mandating a urinalysis on the spot.
Why are we labeling individuals who have met all requirements of their government sanctioned punishments, let alone at all? What truly is the purpose of affixing the label of “Felon” to someone for the rest of their life? We don’t label individuals as “Misdemeanors”. Why must an individual check a block on a job application which requires them to state whether or not they have been convicted of a felony? If the individual is filing the application out, it is safe to say that they have served their punishment or are at least being regularly monitored to ensure legal compliance and appropriate behavior. Aren’t we as a society violating this individual’s rights with all of these stipulations? Is a greater good being served or met through the application of such labels?
The Criminal Justice System is in place to make sure that those individuals who break the laws of society are provided appropriate and effective punishments and rehabilitation, that the victims of said crimes are handled justly and with reasonable recompense, and to prevent crime in general. Reviewing any amount of literature on the Criminal Justice System and the components thereof will clearly show that the system is failing miserably. One of the primary goals of this system is to return previously incarcerated individuals back into society as fully functioning citizens. How reasonable is it to expect that this can be accomplished if these individuals never regain the basic rights that were stripped from them during incarceration? The right to vote, the right to hold office, the right to sit on a jury, the right to bear arms, the right to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” … Granted, there are circumstances which allow for an individual to retain some of these rights, even throughout incarceration, but by and large your “certain unalienable rights” which were “endowed by their Creator” are not automatically reinstated upon release. As a matter of fact, each state has a separate set of standards and procedures regarding which rights can be regained and how, along with those which the individual will never recoup.
So here’s the big question: is this how we truly want our society to work? A criminal will remain labeled and stigmatized as such for the remainder of his/her natural life. This will pass down to his/her children and/or to others within their community, ultimately perpetuating and expanding the magnitude of the issue. Neighborhoods will deteriorate and fail to maintain any semblance of economic, moral, or other success. Crime rates will rise, and violence will become more prevalent. All of this, and more, due to the continued standard of branding former criminals with indelible marks.
What is your opinion on this matter? Should we continue to identify felons as such? Do certain crimes rank so heinous that the individual no longer deserves to enjoy the basic rights of a U.S. citizen? How would you solve these issues? Let your voice be heard by joining the conversation.
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Office of the Pardon Attorney. U.S. Department of Justice. (1996, October). Civil Disabilities of Convicted Felons: A State-by-State Survey. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/pr/195110.pdf
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Eberstadt, N. (2019, May 22). America’s Invisible Felon Population: A Blind Spot in US National Statistics [Testimony] https://www.jec.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/b23fea23-8e98-4bcd-aeed-edcc061a4bc0/testimony-eberstadt-final.pdf
Bronson, J., Carson, E., BJS Statisticians. (2019, April). Prisoners in 2017. Bureau of Justice Statistics. U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from: https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p17.pdf
NORML. (2020). FEDERAL Laws & Penalties [Infographic]. norml.org. https://norml.org/laws/item/federal-penalties-2