Last fall, Florida voted overwhelmingly to restore voting rights for 1.4 million people with criminal records. This past July, however, the Florida Legislature and governor rejected that directive and enacted a law requiring those same people to pay new fees and penalties before voting.
The measure will be tied up in the courts for a long while. Hard to imagine for most of us, but for people with criminal records, a new poll tax is just more of the same.
So, let’s go there. Imagine a life where you spend every day, all day, in a room no bigger than a parking space. You may not have a window, but you’ll have food and water. Your human interaction will be limited. If you earn the privilege of an assigned job, you’ll be free from the mind-numbing tedium for a short while. That leaves plenty of time for contemplating how your life is now defined by the worst thing you’ve ever done.
That’s prison and the path that brought you here may have started with addiction, mental illness, a life of bad choices, a momentary lapse of judgment, or simply because a beleaguered defense lawyer told you that this was the least worst of your then bad options.
Now imagine that you’ve done your time, and you’re out. Will you get a second chance to remake your life?
For the more than 2.2 million men and women currently in U.S. prisons, the 11 million cycling through U.S. jails, and the 600,000 people released from incarceration each year, the answer is a resounding: maybe.
Collateral Consequences Are a Life Sentence
That’s largely because a completed prison sentence often becomes a life sentence. Returning citizens encounter collateral consequences, a myriad of legal restrictions that limit or prohibit people convicted of crimes not just from voting but from certain jobs, housing, public benefits, and other opportunities, including starting their own businesses.
These consequences are serious, indefinite, and life altering. In fact, the National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction, funded by the Justice Department, now tracks more than 40,000 state and federal penalties and prohibitions that returning citizens face as they re-enter their communities.
To be sure, a number of the prohibitions and requirements address legitimate safety or policy goals. As noted by the NICC, some keep guns out of the hands of people convicted of violent crimes, others prevent entry to positions involving contact with children or vulnerable seniors and still others bar those convicted of crimes of fraud or dishonesty from positions of public trust.
However, the jobless rate for formerly incarcerated people is nearly five times the level for the general population and many of these job and business restrictions just don’t make any sense.
In Maine, if you have a felony or misdemeanor record, you can’t be an animal control officer. In Wisconsin, a person with a felony or misdemeanor record can’t register as an interior designer. Here in Massachusetts, a person with a felony record is ineligible to be an auctioneer and can be summarily denied the chance to be an embalmer’s apprentice, a sheet metal worker, or the driver of a horse drawn carriage.
We are long overdue for a top to bottom review of our federal and state criminal justice systems.
More than 70 million American adults—almost 1 out of 3—have some form of criminal record. We spend more than $80 billion annually on incarceration. Here in Massachusetts alone, we spent more than $450 million in one recent year to incarcerate almost 10,000 repeat offenders. This financial and human cost is unsustainable.
Ending mass incarceration, which has increased prison populations four-fold since the 1980s, would be a step in the right direction and we should all be encouraged that Congress and the White House enacted the First Step Act, a rare act of bipartisan cooperation that should introduce common sense and discretion into sentencing for nonviolent, mostly drug offenses.
Let’s ask Congress and our state legislatures to take the next step and tackle the collateral consequences facing returning citizens and their families.
A number of states, including Massachusetts, have moved in this direction by prohibiting employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal record on an application, and with other reforms around expunging and sealing criminal records. However, this progress has been agonizingly slow and state laws protecting returning citizens from discrimination remain a confusing, inconsistent patchwork. We need to do much more, and soon.
How we treat those who have made mistakes and paid for them defines us as a society. We should eliminate unnecessary and punitive restrictions that prevent people with criminal records from getting a job. We should welcome back returning citizens and encourage them to start new businesses in our communities. We should imagine a nation that believes in second chances.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Lawrence Gennari is a corporate and transactional lawyer at Gennari Aronson LLP. He is also an adjunct law professor at Boston College Law School where he teaches Project Entrepreneur, a student led business fundamentals boot camp class for people with criminal records, most of whom previously were incarcerated.