Getting out of prison can be a daunting journey for anyone no matter the offense. In many jurisdictions, ex-inmates receive little more than the clothes on their back, their meager personal possessions confiscated upon entry, a few dollars and an open-ended bus ticket.
Looking out on the wide-open world often instills dread and depression instead of hope and promise. The 650,000 former prisoners returning to the free world in the United States each year are branded with a scarlet letter — “F” for felon for the rest of their lives.
We must do more to integrate them into society as full, productive “returned citizens.” The best way? Offer the opportunity to restore all their rights as citizens: voting, employment, housing and even gun rights.
Our twin pillars of the criminal-justice system have been punishment and rehabilitation. We are doing a decent job in punishing offenders, in many cases with long, often mandatory, sentences for various crimes, but doing a terrible job at rehabilitating them. Prison is rarely time well spent for inmates.
According to the Justice Department’s comprehensive study of released inmates, the vast majority go right back into the criminal-justice system. In fact, 37 percent are rearrested within six months of release, 56.7 percent within a year, two-thirds within three years and almost 77 percent by year five of their release date. That means that in the time it takes an ordinary college student to graduate, only 23 percent stay out of the sights of law enforcement.
To change the trajectory, we should add a third pillar: redemption.
For former inmates, staying out of prison is difficult. They are denied many of the basic freedoms we take for granted. These restrictions and limitations are often called collateral consequences since they linger long after the former inmates have paid for the crimes by being incarcerated. States and the federal government have put in place tens of thousands of these limits on felons as further punishment, often without clear connection to the convict’s criminal history.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) recently reinstated the voting rights of 200,000 felons. His move has been denounced by many, including Republican legislative leaders, who are suing over the executive order.
Regardless of the restoration’s legality, neither side is right. Individuals with a felony conviction should not be given their rights back; they should have to earn them through hard work and by playing by the rules. The governor was wrong to issue blanket restoration to those convicted of offenses, ranging from murder to petty theft, and his Republican opponents are wrong to forever damn the convicted to a life beset by challenges.
In the Old Dominion alone, any person convicted of any felony faces 413 limitations and consequences after prison. These range from a ban on acquiring a “horse racing official permit” to work and living restrictions such as not being able to return to a licensed profession or being forbidden from residing with their adoptive children.
Instead of permanently barring felons from pursuing a full and truly free life outside prison, we should encourage them to rejoin their community and society as a whole through a post-release redemption-based system.
Although voting is symbolic, it is not enough for us to restore the franchise and call it a day. We should and can do much more, but we should reward former prisoners only if they earn it.
They alone must choose if they will return to lives of crime or substance abuse and the resulting punitive measures or if they will redeem themselves in the eyes of the law and their fellow citizens. If they choose the latter, we have an obligation to reward them — if they can earn their redemption.
States and the federal government should set out stringent criteria that ex-offenders must meet, including holding steady employment, making appropriate financial restitution to the state and their victims, paying taxes, liens and debts (e.g. child support) in a timely manner and participating in and serving the community. Most important, they must remain on the straight and narrow, free from criminal acts and convictions and from substance abuse.
If those convicted of felonies or other crimes meet these criteria, the state should go a step further after a time and completely expunge and/or seal their criminal records. Maryland took a first step in this direction recently by enacting the state’s Justice Reinvestment Act, which expands eligible offenses for expungement to 50. In addition, the states should restore all their prior rights as citizens, including suffrage, employment, housing and many others. After five years, these former inmates would be eligible to petition a court for full citizenship restoration with final approval granted by the state’s governor (or the president in federal cases).
The restoration of basic rights could well become a cause for celebration for the former inmates, their friends and family — a graduation of sorts — something many of those returning from prison have never experienced.
For felons and former inmates, the states should set expectations high that you will be pardoned — if you can earn it.