The Eclectic One

…Because labels are a poor substitute for thinking

Permanent Second-Class Citizenship

Posted by Bill Nance on August 30, 2009

SayUncle has a tidbit that I enjoyed reading, especially the comments on the post because they pose some interesting questions that go to the heart of our criminal Justice system.

The Juice:

The North Carolina Supreme Court says a 2004 law that bars convicted felons from having a gun, even within their own home or business, is unconstitutional.

Good. Civil rights should be restored once your debt to society is paid.

I often disagree with posts on this blog but here I think he nails it.

Historically the concept of “criminal records” are a fairly new thing. Once upon a time if you committed a crime, went to prison and got out, you could move to a new town or state and start all over again. Now, once you commit any crime anywhere, that record stays with you forever.

The problem with this is that when we release someone who has served their sentence, they enter into a lifetime of second-class citizenship. They can’t vote, they can’t own a firearm for self defense and they are barred from many many jobs where “being a felon” instantly puts them out of the running, even if their crime had nothing to do with the job. With the advent of $20 internet-based criminal record searches that absolutely anyone can run you can’t even lie about your past and have any hope of it not coming up.

A felony record, or for that matter even a misdemeanor conviction can keep you from obtaining anything more than menial employment at minimum wage forever. Is that the price we want to impose for owning an eagle feather? Yes, that’s a felony. As are countless other victimless crimes.

Think about that for a minute. An 18-year-old fool does something incredibly stupid, like taking a joy-ride in a stolen car, gets caught, does a couple of years in prison (which is hardly a trivial price to pay for an hour’s stupidity that didn’t hurt anyone) and forever more is consigned to wear a scarlet letter of FELON, no matter where he goes or how he lives his life no matter how virtuous.

And people wonder why we have high recidivism rates?

What’s the purpose of a criminal justice system anyway? Would not most people agree that it’s primarily to keep people safe from people who would prey on them, serve as an example to other would-be criminals and give the public some sense that justice is being done? Beyond that I suppose you could add rehabilitation, but experience shows prison is a lousy place for that. To deter people from re-offending you ghave to offer some hope for a future. Our current system does not. Quite the opposite.

I’m not talking about being soft on perpetrators. If you commit a serious crime the penalties should be stiff. If you attempt murder I’m quite content with locking your ass up for a very, very long time, possibly forever. If you break into a house you should do years, not months. I could go on down the list, but hey, committing a serious crime and getting caught should hurt. A lot.

But keeping people who have served every day of their sentences as second class citizens forever is just plain counter-productive. If you’re still dangerous, you shouldn’t be getting out of prison. If you’re not, then it’s time to wipe the slate clean, at least as far as the general public will ever know, and letting you start out fresh with the ability to make a new life. After all, it’s not like starting out fresh at age 30 after a ten-year prison sentence is a walk in the park under any circumstances, record or no record.

I’m fine with the courts keeping records. And I’m fine with the concept of throwing away the key on repeat serious offenders. But what we’re doing with the current system is throwing away the key on people who have made one serious mistake. And think about it for a moment: If you’re to be consigned to a life of minimum wage jobs and sucking up to the boss in fear he’ll fire you and you won’t get another just as crappy job, why the Hell would you not go back into crime? We’re asking people to make entirely irrational choices and then we’re surprised when they give us the finger.

Let them do their time. Eliminate parole. But once they’re out, restore their rights. All of them. Anything else is just tyranny to no purpose an makes even rehabilitated folks want to go back to breaking the law. What the Hell, at least that has some dignity to it, risk or no risk.

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