The Risks of Permanent Punishment

The following originally appeared in the New York Times Room for Debate forum.

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that people convicted of felony offenses deserve to lose the rights and privileges of citizenship is a vestige of outdated ideas of civil death that have no place in modern America.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.

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Changing public attitudes is the single greatest step toward reforming a criminal justice and penal system that is as counterproductive as it is vindictive. Politicians have made their careers on dehumanizing citizens who commit crimes. Without significant public pressure, those who make the laws and policies cannot or will not make the changes necessary to save the lives we are now wasting through the CJS.

Thirty plus years ago, as a young prisoners rights attorney, I was told that winning a torts case for a prisoner would never yield more than $1.00 in damages -- a jury cannot conceive that any harm to a felon or ex-felon should be compensated for. Prisoners were non-persons then and they are even more so today -- and far more of them. We have dehumanized a class consisting of millions of Americans, a dangerous step that has led to state-sanctioned brutality and beyond.

Thank you to Mr. Noisette and the OSI for the courageous work you do.

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