Grey Walls

Looking at grey walls for ten years makes an impact. Less than mediocre grade cafeteria food for years is almost a punishment—in itself. Upon being released from prison, it is fair to say an ex-convict will not want to return. Legislation can either aid or hinder a criminals reentry and rehabilitation back into mainstream society. Due to the “harsh-on-crime” perspective the United States has maintained for so long, a smooth reentry to society is next to impossible. While, incarceration deprives liberties as it should, upon release back into society ex-criminals should not have to suffer additional punishments as a result of existing discriminatory legislation; such as Ban the Box policies, drug felon bans on welfare benefits, disenfranchisement laws, and discriminatory housing vouchers.

There is no question as to whether a criminal should be punished as a result of breaking the law. Policymakers have made the process for released criminals to rehabilitate back into society extremely trying and difficult. As a result of the discriminatory and unfair legislation mixed with the ex-criminals’ lack of resources to provide, reverting to a life of crime begins to seem more desirable. However, according to the majority of Returning Home respondents, “[criminals] felt that having a job would help them stay our of prison” (Urban). Unfortunately, finding work while retaining a criminal record is next to impossible. Employers have a hard time looking past the record and at an individual’s skills. In addition, “employers can be hesitant to hire individuals with criminal record because of heightened exposure to negligent hiring or negligent retention lawsuits in the event an ex-offender committed a crime or causes harm to another person while carrying out his or her work duties” (Vera). In efforts to mitigate the discriminatory process when reviewing applications, policymakers adopted the “Ban the Box” policies. These policies require employers to move the “Box” used to indicate if an applicant has a criminal record, to a later stages in the application process—now often seen in an interview section.

In theory, these policies seem like a good idea. Even President Barack Obama believes that these “Ban the Box” policies offer criminals a “second chance” (Mason). However despite policymakers efforts to decrease employee discrimination the new legislation ended up increasing racial discrimination in the application process. Since employers were no longer able to see an applicant’s criminal history on paper, they relied on their predetermined biases of who could have a record, increasing racial discrimination and negatively affect African Americans. In a major study conducted by University of Michigan and Princeton University, researchers tested the degree of discrimination in the application process. Researchers created and sent, “nearly 15,000 fictitious online job applications to entry-level, low-skill positions in New York City and New Jersey” (Vloet). The applicants were either black or white and all paired with an equal counterpart—one with a criminal record one without. Before the policies were put in place,  “[white applicants] received about 7% more callbacks than equally qualified black applicants. After Ban the Box was adopted this gap ballooned to 45%” (Vloet). Although more white people with criminal records were able to get jobs, African Americans were left with little hope.

However, when dealing with nonviolent criminal and juvenile cases, expunging or sealing a criminal record is often plausible. Expunging is the elimination of recorded criminal activity from an individual’s record. This is beneficial because colleges, employers, and government agencies will no longer be aware of an individual’s past criminal history. In contrast to other policies, it seems as though Congress is moving toward legislation to help the lives of convicted individuals. The REDEEM ACT, “presented comprehensive expungement reform at the federal level…the bill would allow the expungement or sealing of records relating to nonviolent criminal and juvenile offensives” (Murray). This bill both recognized and restricted low-grade convictions as well as provisions aimed to reinforce expungement. Under this bill the only way to access past criminal history is with a court order, otherwise the past actions of an individual would be treated “as if it never occurred” (Murray). However, if an individual is convicted of a later offense, the record will be used in determining the new sentence (Irving).

In addition to the struggle of finding work, ex-criminals also face hurdles when applying for welfare. In 1996, President Bill Clinton passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which placed a lifetime ban on receiving welfare benefits such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) on an applicants if convicted of a drug-related crime (H.R.3734). The revocation of benefits for people in need only cause individual to resort to alternate means in efforts to make ends meet. Policymakers supported PRWORA because they thought the harsh repercussions of being convicted of drug-related crimes would deter use and make lower income communities safer. However, “under the terms of the law, in a TANF – eligible household the month grant allotment is reduce for the ineligible parent, but is still allowed for that person’s children” (Mauer). The effects of the ban does not only affect individual but also place unnecessary strains on children and parents. For instance, given a family of four—one mother and three children—who would originally qualify to receive benefits and assistance for all members. If one member, is denied benefits they only receive money for three while still providing for four. Even though, the family is still receiving some financial assistance, disqualifying one member forces the family to use less money to provide for more, placing unnecessary stains on both parents and children.

Many taxpayers are in favor in restricting welfare benefits because they are concerned that their taxpayer money is being used to commit welfare fraud. In reality, “the SNAP fraud rate is extremely low: from 2006-2008, the trafficking rate for food stamps was approximately one cent per every dollar” (Mauer). Denying benefits has not only proven to be ineffective in decreasing drug use and welfare fraud but also has also increased both public health and safety risks. Data shows that, “people who did not eat for an entire day were more likely to engage in HIV risk behaviors, such as using alcohol, heroin, or cocaine before sex or exchanging sex for money” (Mauer). Denying government welfare benefits to ex-criminals is not only inhibiting successful reentry, but also putting them at risk as they strive to provide for their families.

Of course, the discriminatory and unfair legislation doesn’t end here. Once released from prison, depending on the state, an individual may not be allowed to vote and becomes disenfranchised for life. In total, twelve states have legislation banning ex-criminals from voting even after prison, parole, and/or probation (Chung). Denying ex-criminals the right to vote, a basic civil right, shows that they are never really “part of society” again. This social isolation and lack of unity can cause malicious and deviant behavior. Due to the fact prisoners and ex-prisoners are disenfranchised, revisions in criminal justice legislation never changes.

Once out of prison, most criminals need a place to live. The vast majority plan on living with family or friends during the first few years of reentry. For those who do not have someone to live with, they are forced to find either rent or resort to government provided housing. Finding a landlord who will sign an individual with a criminal record can be extremely difficult—especially one without a secure job and income.  As an attempt to mitigate this issue found in the criminal justice system, the government provides half-way houses for ex-criminals.  However, because these half-way houses are located in lower-income communities, the ex-convicts end up living in neighborhoods full of crime. Studies have shown that after being released, “concentrating former prisoners in the same neighborhoods leads to significantly higher recidivism rates than if ex-prisoners were more dispersed across neighborhoods” (Misra). Spreading ex-criminals out would aid in their reentry by keeping them physically separated from criminal activity. Again, in theory it makes sense. However, many states require former convicts to go back and live in the county they were convicted in (Misra). These regulations hinder successful reentry by subjecting ex-criminals to the same situation they were in prior to conviction.

Even receiving a spot in government housing can be difficult for some former convicts. Legislation provides a very narrow statute on who to deny housing through The Quality Housing and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1998 (QHWORA). The act only offers two regulations on when individual’s should be denied housing.  If an individual is a convicted sex offender they should be denied, as they could pose a risk to all other residents. Or if an individual has been convicted of producing methamphetamine they should be denied, because of the dangers associated with meth labs (i.e. explosions and/or the release of toxins). This narrow statute leaves a very wide amount of discretion to the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) authorities when picking residents. Even though, “HUD is also expected to encourage housing authorities to consider conviction but not arrest records when screening applicants” (Vera), often times racial and other sorts of discrimination are the main determinate of being an accepted applicant. Multiple states have adopted laws aimed at making it easier for people with a criminal record to obtain housing. Laws such as Vermont SB 291 (2014), Connecticut SB 364 (2014), California SB 1021 (2012), and Kentucky HB 463 (2011) all ensure the access to housing for ex-criminals (Vera). Even with reforms in some states, living in half-way houses does nothing but place an ex-criminal back in their original situation. Applicants are also subject to large amounts of racial discrimination and bias, causing the first step of integrating back into society more difficult than it should be.

After spending time in prison, criminals seem to have suffered enough. The vast amount of discriminatory legislation aimed at hindering their rehabilitation back into society is excessive. Criminals deserve a fair chance to turn their life around. When applying for low level jobs, policymakers should keep Ban the Box policies, but also make the applicants race confidential. This way employers aren’t able to discriminate against ex-criminals or their race, and focus on an applicants skills and experience (CQ Press). During the interview section of an application, if an employer desires they can ask about criminal history. In addition, companies should receive incentives to hire people with a record. Such incentives could be tax cuts or immunization in a lawsuit if the criminal does commit another crime. However, offering ex-criminals a job will help their reentry back into society and lessen recidivism rates.

In addition, legislation should be revised for those applying and receiving welfare benefits. Instead of a lifetime ban, applicants who have a drug felon should be required to attend drug classes and pass drug inspections ignored to receive or continue receiving benefits. Because taxpayers are concerned about their money being used to buy drugs and commit welfare fraud, it would only make sense that all people paid with tax money be required to pass a drug test. This includes government officials.

It seems fair that a inmates right to vote is taken away. However, once prisoners are released, even if they are on probation or parole, they should still get the opportunity to vote. Since the goal of jail is to correct and punish deviant behavior, it would only make sense to reward the successful completion of their punishment. Doing so, will help them integrate back into society and stay away from a life of crime.  Which is the overall goal of the criminal justice system.

Government hosing should be spread out in multiple communities, not only the lower-income neighborhoods. The legislation requiring ex-criminals to return back to the county they were convicted in should be removed completely. There has been no studies to show any benefit from this legislation. Spreading former convicts out and showing them what successful communities look like, will aid in the rehabilitation process as they try and get back on their feet.

Due to the “harsh-on-crime” perspective America has, legislation needs to be reformed in efforts to mitigate the almost impossible rehabilitation process for former convicts. A few of the many reforms necessary include incentives given to companies to hire people with a record and drug tests given to government officials before receiving their taxpayer money. It is societies job to help a former convict successfully integrate back into mainstream lifestyle. The punishments should cease after prison and hopefully the memory of the grey walls and mediocre cafeteria food will be so impactful , that recidivism will decline and ex-convicts will avoid resorting back to criminal activity.

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