The Center for American Progress published an article last week regarding some initiatives by six states to redeem their huge masses of convicted criminals.  As it happens, this is an issue I consider to be important and I’m glad I found this.

A typical reaction in modern day Ultra Law and Order Mega-City One America might go something like this: “Ah, screw ’em.  Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time!”

Honestly, is there any real amount of sympathy for convicted felons?  Why should we take steps to improve the lives of people who broke the law, allow them to vote, or otherwise participate in society since they will probably just re-offend anyway?

Well, maybe we should start considering how the current approach isn’t good for us or our communities.

Barring justice-involved individuals from becoming productive, taxpaying members of their communities also takes a toll on state and local economies—and even the nation’s bottom line. In fact, the Center for Economic Policy Research estimated that shutting people with felony records out of the labor market results in a loss of as many as 1.9 million workers and costs the U.S. economy up to a whopping $87 billion each year in lost gross domestic product. On the flip side, removing barriers to opportunity for people with records has been shown to boost local economies while reducing spending on the criminal justice system and public assistance.

Many years ago, I had a friend whose family I became quite close to.  I’ve since lost touch with my friend and his family, but I always think of them whenever I read about this particular issue.  My friend’s father worked as a janitor in a church and had slaved away at a variety of jobs like that for shit wages for almost twenty years, somehow raising a family of six.  We’ll call him “Tom”.

Tom didn’t especially want to live in near-poverty, but he didn’t have a lot of options.  He was a convicted felon.  You see, when he was about 20 he fell in with the wrong crowd and let a career criminal talk him in to joining in on committing an armed robbery at a convenience store.  He got caught and went to prison for a couple of years before being paroled.

What he found upon release was that his life was effectively over.  He was unemployable, traumatized by his experiences in prison, and couldn’t see any way forward.  I’m not going to lie to you.  Tom was no angel.  He was a drunk by the time I first met him and he smoked weed, like, always.  But what do you expect?  The man was depressed.

However, what he never again committed a violent crime.  See, the circumstances that had come together on that one fateful night were never re-created.  His experiences made him wiser.  Tom didn’t associate with dangerous criminals again and he was genuinely remorseful for the fear he had instilled in his victim, the cashier at the convenience store.  It was one big mistake, but he was condemned to live with it for the rest of his life.

It’s fascinating to me that Tom never re-offended, not because of some flaw in his character or anything like that, but because he had no incentive to be a law-abiding citizen beyond his desire to remain the best family man he could.  It really was the only meaningful contribution he felt he could make, even though it was insanely difficult to provide for his family.

He worked for years to obtain a pardon so he could improve his and his family’s lot in life, but to no avail.  No such avenues were open to “violent criminals” in our state.  No expungement, no second chance, nothing.  Only marginalization.  Had he been able to apply himself to other endeavors with the fervor he did trying to clear his record, I have no doubt he would have had a successful and productive life.  Wasn’t to be.

The point is that there are millions of Toms out there who screw up, get caught, and then are simply written off by society.  Many of them, for reasons that are obvious to criminologists do re-offend due to the lack of alternatives to crime or the inability to escape the factors that led to them offending in the first place.

Our excessive laws and demand for harsh punishments create this situation.  Then we call it “justice”.  It isn’t just.  It isn’t even wise.  It’s immoral is what it is.  When you consider the impact on the families of these people who are permanently locked out of the economy for crimes they have already served their time for, you start to understand that our criminal justice system condemns them for “the sins of the fathers”.  That’s a violation of every proper religious and natural law known to humanity.

It’s time to change it.  I encourage the legislative efforts taking place at the state level to reintegrate those who have been convicted of crimes, and served their time, back into society.  I wish my own state was listed, for Tom’s sake.

Please read the whole article.  This is a serious social problem we should and could be addressing much more intelligently and morally than we are now.  If nothing else, let’s at least entertain the economic angle.

3 comments

  1. California loves to lock people up indefinitely. It’s one of the most surprising aspects of the culture here that outer liberal leaning political system can find compassion for seemingly anything, but when it comes to crime we have one of the largest prison industrial complexes in America.

    I’m ambivalent about the solution but reform and rehab seems to be reluctantly where I’d place my chips. The thing is we’re getting the government expansion in either direction. More punishment here has translated to a super sized prison industrial complex full of guards, hefty meal contracts, staff, psychiatrists, nurses, medical and dental. All these things that have to be covered for prisoners because we have decided as a society to do so. In California, of course, every expansion in staff to cover these costs comes with union, payroll, medical, dental and retirement obligations on the taxpayer for both prisoners and employees to care for them.

    I think a huge problem we have in this nation is we don’t have a party that openly discusses what all of these social projects will cost us as a society. In this case it’s a bipartisan lay up to say you want to be tough on crime and it’s political suicide for even a republican to say “umm, fellas this will cost us trillions to weaponize the felony penalty system, not to mention the cost of welfare for the rest of time for these unemployable people after prison.”

    It’s a huge problem here, so much so that Jerry brown (yes, I know, boo hiss) actually passed a resolution to effectively bar criminal background checks from employers. I don’t like that it’s come to this but what other choice does the state have? If these offenders simply give up then the taxpayer is on the hook for welfare, medi-cal, and section 8 housing. If we don’t have a resolution like this these people will surly be unemployed forever. Most jobs have way more applicants than roles, so the easiest way to trim the list is to start at who has a record.

    We also passed a resolution for early release for non-violent offenders. The one conservative talk station here constantly harps on this. Sometimes they highlight a story that is truly trigger worthy, so that’s why I am ambivalent. The thing is our crime rate doesn’t seem to be going up or down over it so by the numbers the measures don’t seem to cause the sky to fall. My main problem is when I put myself in the shoes of a victim and think that I might lose a loved one to one of these people and they’ll get to walk the earth free after that. Maybe if we keep it to non violent offenders we won’t have to make such a hard decision.

  2. Three strikes is probably one of the worst legacies of past lawmaking. Unfortunately politicians rarely want to look “soft on crime,” and prisons can make a lot of money for states.

  3. of course i agree with ya guys, the current prison system doesnt do anything except turn the non violent offenders into violent ones once they get out… cycle of violence….

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