If we truly want people to come out of prison with the ability to fully re-engage as productive citizens, why do we deliberately disconnect them?
The notion that people convicted of felony offenses deserve to lose the rights and privileges of citizenship is a vestige of outdated ideas of civil death that have no place in modern America. There are appropriate ways to ensure that punishment is proportionate to the offense, including direct sanctions like imprisonment, community supervision, fines and restitution. The increasing array of collateral punishments — like loss of the right to vote, prohibitions on employment, and lack of access to public housing or other benefits — bear little or no relationship to protecting the integrity of our civic institutions, to say nothing of any legitimate public safety goals.
Denial of the right to vote, for example, is largely about retribution and signals that citizens have been banished, that their voices don't matter, that they shouldn't feel any sense of responsibility for — or investment in — the society in which they live. Similarly, denial of an occupational license, or employment generally, without any specific proof that prior criminal conduct renders one unqualified for a particular job — based on an assumption of moral frailty — is equally short-sighted, often condemning a person to a life of struggle that creates a greater risk to public safety.
Enduring labels like “felon,” “criminal,” and “ex-offender” do little to help us understand the harm people may have caused, the likelihood that they might inflict harm again, or how much they can contribute to society. Instead, permanent punishment based on those labels likely harms us all.