Summary: Are felons worth less to society? Have we legislated them into a socioeconomic category that they can't remove themselves from? Can we change minds, hearts and legislation to help them no longer be a second class citizen?
Are Ex-felons Worth Less to Society
25 November 2020
25 November 2020
The question being posed is whether or not a formerly incarcerated person has less value to the American society than any other citizen, or is there a socioeconomic sub-class that has developed within which an entire segment of the population exists, and has no real opportunity, other than sporadically, to emerge from such a lesser position and take their place alongside of the populous and at least have a fair chance at achieving the American dream. This paper will analyze three different aspects of determinants of what might be considered a meaningful and happy life. First, it will examine the earning potential of former felons compared to the average worker in America. Second, it will look at biases or discriminatory practices which tend to keep a person under foot and may even cause a continuation of criminogenic behavior that the ex-felon feels is necessary to survive, thereby perpetuating the carceral cycle. Last, this paper will explore barriers to achieving the life that Americans strive for, the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. It will examine various laws and political movements meant to continue the disenfranchisement of former felons. The purpose of this paper is to lay out evidence of a societal blind spot that has been ignored by legislators and many Americans who, as long as they don't have to be neighbors or co-workers with ex-felons, would agree to their plight and the need for its repair.
There is plenty of research that corroborates the claim that ex-felons do not have the same earning potential as the average person in America. One need only look at the current unemployment situation in the United States. Recent research suggests that The unemployment rate among ex-felons is 27% compared to just 6.9% of the general public" (Horn) and "almost half of ex-prisoners have no reported earnings in the first several years after leaving prison" (Looney). For all of the recent good news that one hears of, where a few states have gone so far as to restore, en masse, voting rights to former felons, it seems unconscionable that such a society would allow employers to continue to discriminate against ex-felons with such frequency, as to accumulate a 27% unemployment rate among them. To put this into terms that echo its catastrophe, during the Great Depression, the standard by which every modern economic disaster in America is measured, the economy of the United States was in shambles and millions of people were suddenly out of work, poor, homeless, and many starved to death. During that national crisis, the unemployment rate rose from 3.2% in 1929 and reached 25% by 1933. Still lower than that of former felons in 2020. Why this is not seen by the American society and government as an equal crisis is unimaginable. Obviously its not. One does not read about it in the morning newspapers or see it on the evening news. One does not read posts about it on social media, nor do they teach about it in schools. It is not spoken of around the water cooler at work or even in passing, like one discusses the weather. So why would congress take up measures to address it? It is not on the minds of everyday Americans, of voters, so it is not a priority.
In America, if someone wants to earn more money by pursuing a certain career field, they simply apply for student aid and enroll in school. Upon successful completion of said school, they are free to seek employment within that field of study. One would think that this is a basic right, granted all American citizens. Well, unfortunately it is not a right, it is a privilege. A privilege, which is funded largely by tax dollars. Taxes that even when underemployed or underpaid, ex-felons contribute to. This privilege is unavailable for many previously convicted persons. The federal governments student aid website reports that "if your incarceration was for a drug-related offense or if you are subject to an involuntary civil commitment for a sexual offense, your eligibility may be limited" (FSA). 1 in 5 people who are incarcerated are convicted of drug offenses. There is a questionable morality of excluding nearly 20% of all former prisoners based on criminal convictions tied directly to addiction. We have a society who is willing to overlook the basic science of addiction and the inability of the addicted to make rational decisions which ultimately lead to a criminal conviction which in turn disqualifies them from seeking assistance with higher education. Basically, we don't allow those who were bound in addiction, and have since decided to be better, the opportunity to follow their desire of being a better person through education, something that everyone should be able to agree on as a good first step in the right direction for a person choosing to live a life free of crime.
The socioeconomic stranglehold does not end there, for not only do former felons earn less and are given far fewer opportunities to succeed, but there is also considerable discrimination towards this population. Discrimination that might as well be sanctioned by the United States Government, by way of rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court due to amendments in the U.S. Constitution, the very document that forges the rights of every American citizen and legislation such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act. You might ask yourself what the Far Credit Reporting Act (FRCA) has to do with discrimination against former felons seeking employment. The FCRA was passed by Congress in 1970, with the intent to ensure fair reporting of a person's credit file information. While the FCRA does contain elements that by law protect credit seeking consumers from having unfair information reported that may tarnish their creditworthiness, the same act also allows for employers, creditors and anyone else who decides to do so, to find out everything about a person's background. The public information section of credit bureau reports contains information regarding civil judgements, evictions, and criminal history. It is most likely illegal to use the information for the explicit purpose of discriminating against people, but one need only look within to decide whether having the knowledge about someone's background could, even if only slightly, persuade the possessor of said information to make decisions based on that information. Is it possible that an employer, for example, would use the knowledge that an applicant has been convicted of a crime and has served a sentence in prison, to decide against hiring them? If there is even the slightest chance that this could be the case, then it is discrimination and there is no room in the 21st century for people to be treated unfairly and it to be allowed. With this type of access to someone's background information, normal people may commit nefarious acts upon their fellow citizens, even if they have the best intentions. This legislation needs to be re-written to disallow the public information section to feature information that could cause discrimination against former felons. Information can be an immensely powerful tool. But information that is improperly used, can cause damage beyond comprehension.
The internet age is upon us. The internet contains information about every single person in America, unless they live off of the grid, where there is no access to internet, email, social media, or any other platform such as Google and Apple, among others. In recent years, there have been widespread acknowledgements of false information on the internet. Jokingly, people say things like "Everyone knows that if it is on the internet, it must be true." There are commercials and shows on TV depicting internet falsehoods that are considered humorous. One can find pretty much anything they seek information about on the internet. Unfortunately, this holds true for people's criminal past as well. Booking photos of the daily arrests make for interesting ways to pass time. Unless you are the one booked. Booking photos and prison records stay on the internet forever. There is no timeframe at which they cease to appear in a search of one's name. So far, there is no satisfactory remedy for removing one's derogatory information from searches, even if it has been decades since the arrest. Unfortunately, if the information is true, that is all that is required for databases such as Google to continue to display it in public searches. In effect, this means that the arrest or the subsequent conviction including incarceration, could be the standard by which someone is judged for the rest of their lives, regardless of all other attempts to better themselves, as that mitigating information is unlikely to be attached to the defamatory result of a search as a caveat to the searcher before they develop an opinion about the person whom they have queried. The Double-Jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits anyone from being prosecuted twice for essentially the same crime. Unfortunately, that protection thus far does not extend to ex-felons who have already served out their sentence, but who's information is publicly available, and allows for the repeated penalization for the same crime, by anyone else who chooses to do so. In a perfect world this would not happen, because judgmental people would not exist. But we live on earth and in reality.
The same document that doesn't protect ex-felons from being penalized in Double-Jeopardy, is also the document that allows individual states to continue legally discriminating against persons who have been convicted of crimes, in that those states have the ability to take away basic rights, and make it nearly impossible for the disenfranchised to regain those rights. These rights, symbols of the American way of life, the right to vote and select representatives in various chambers of local, state and national government, are akin to a status symbol in America. Those who vote, are able to express their opinions and elect people who agree with their opinion. Opinions that protect their way of life expressed through legislation by elected officials, who are the voter's peers in many ways and who represent the voters way of life. Ex-felons, however, who have not yet regained the right to vote, do not have the opportunity to help elect peers of their own as lawmakers, with the hope of helping to change the very laws that keep them disenfranchised. This trickle-down discrimination, from the very top of our judicial system, has emboldened politicians and has allowed legislatures across the country to enact laws, impose monetary fines, and keep felons from earning enough to pay those fines, so that they can restore their right to vote and help change the very system that maintains this cruel and perpetual cycle. Where voting is concerned, and only in this respect, being a felon with no voting rights is worse than having been African American and having only three-fifths of a vote at one time in America, which anyone nowadays would agree was a travesty! Still, even at three-fifths, worthless as it was, it was at least still a partial vote, not a non-vote. This issue is widespread in America and has been growing exponentially for some time, with the Sentencing Project reporting that "The dramatic growth of the U.S. prison population in the last 40 years has led to record levels of disenfranchisement, with an estimated 6.1 million voters banned from the polls today (Chung, 1). It is easy to see that this cycle is a vicious one. It leads to not only continued disenfranchisement, but also a generational continuation of the cycle of the criminal lifestyle.
Felons live where other felons live. This is not by mistake. Felon friendly housing a hot commodity among ex-felons and with so few housing units available and the information about criminal convictions being readily available, as discussed earlier, felons must take what they can get. The neighborhoods are poor, and the crime and drugs are rampant. The next generation growing up in those neighborhoods are likely to be influenced by their surroundings and end up learning about the criminal lifestyle at an early age and end up incarcerated as well. In many ways, this is reminiscent of an earlier time in America where low income families of differing races were funneled into slums and public housing which perpetuated the generational cycle of poverty, welfare, a lack of education, drug use, violence and a breakdown of the family unit with single mothers raising their children alone, due to father being incarcerated. It is strikingly like the modern day disenfranchised. Again, this is a perpetual cycle that is as much like a perpetual motion machine, where little to no energy is required to maintain its momentum. The inability to earn money, leads to an inability to pay one's way through life, leads one to return to a life of crime.
Another striking similarity between an earlier, uglier time in America, is the modern-day poll tax. At one time in our great nation, certain populations were disallowed from voting because they were unable to afford it. Jurisdictions would legislatively keep certain populations from being able to exercise their right to vote by imposing a poll tax. Without payment of said poll tax, those individuals were not allowed to cast their vote. Today, with felons being unable to earn enough money to pay many of the court fees, fines, and restitution, they are not allowed to cast their vote because they have not regained that right. They further can not regain that right until those fees, fines, and restitution are fully paid. It is painfully obvious, that this a modern version of a poll tax, put in place to keep a particular segment of the population from regaining their rights to vote and then possibly changing the legislative landscape by electing more lawmakers who are more sympathetic to the disenfranchised, which in turn could help more ex-felons regain their rights and turn the cycle around, to a more positive course. There are lawmakers who are sympathetic right now. They are making strides in changing laws that keep ex-felons their full potential as regular citizens. One such potential law is the "Ban the box" movement.
Ban the Box is an attempt by some lawmakers to make it mandatory that employers are not allowed to ask questions about a person's background before making the decision to interview them for a position. This would give former felons the same competitive edge that non-felons have, namely, not shredding the employment application as soon as the employer notices that the applicant has marked the box which asks if they have ever been convicted of a felony, and inviting them to schedule an interview. The felon would still at some point before being hired need to disclose the felony background, but at least they had an opportunity to get into the interview and make a positive impression. That positive impression could be all that is needed for the felon to gain that job opportunity and turn their life around. Many felons have quite a bit of experience working and having been trained in specialty fields while they were incarcerated. Skills which could be desirable to employers. But these skills might never be considered if the application is rejected purely based on the question of criminal background. The felon can't skip the question, as it is seen as dishonesty. There is no way for the felon to explain himself or to show how they have worked to improve their life on a job application. Therefore, banning the box that asks if they have ever been convicted of a felony would be an amazing start to giving honest to goodness second chances.
The purpose of this paper is to change the minds of lawmakers and voters. Lawmakers, because they already have the ability to make it more fair for the disenfranchised to have a say in who governs them and voters who have the power to help elect more empathetic legislators to help create the laws that ban the box and make it easier for felons to earn more and in turn lead better lives. This is not a problem that is unsolvable. This is a problem that has been legislated into existence. Anything that exists because of legislation can easily be changed with new legislation This would not be the first time America created laws that eventually were changed because they did not work. One only need to look at prohibition to see that.
Chung, Jean. "Felony Disenfranchisement: A Primer." The Sentencing Project, The Sentencing Project, 7 Aug. 2020
Dunn, Megan. "Locked Up and Locked Out." U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Government, 1 Aug. 2015
Looney, Adam. "5 Facts about Prisoners and Work, before and after Incarceration." Brookings, The Brookings Institution, 20 Mar. 2018
Sawyer, Wendy, and Peter Wagner. "Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020." Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020 | Prison Policy Initiative, Prison Policy Initiative. 24 March 2020
"Students with Criminal Convictions Have Limited Eligibility for Federal Student Aid." Federal Student Aid, U.S. Department of Education