Do we as a society want to perpetually punish those who have been convicted of a crime? Or, are we a people who believe that once a punishment is doled out and satisfied, when it has been completed that person is free and able and expected to participate in, and fully contribute to our communities.
Returning Citizens: the preferred term for people who are returning to the community following incarceration.
In the United States, there are 65 million Americans that bear the label “ex-convict.”[i] After serving a sentence for crimes committed, the returning citizen must prepare for the arduous process of successful re-entry into society. This process is quite challenging because stigma creates a daunting barrier throughout the rehabilitation process.
The expectation is that one’s conviction and sentencing are the culmination of the criminal justice process. After conviction for a criminal offense, an individual pays their debt to society through a court-ordered sentence. This sentence can include community service, paying fines and/or damages, meeting conditions of probation, or serving time in jail or prison. This court-sanctioned sentence does not, however, define the entirety of consequences that convicted individuals will face. Chief Justice Earl Warren described the resulting stigma experienced as an imposition of “a status upon a person which not only makes him vulnerable…but seriously affects his reputation and economic opportunities.”[ii]
Closed Doors: Housing, Education and Employment
Depending on a returning citizen’s state of residence, he or she may be ineligible for public housing, even though immediately after release from prison is when housing stability is needed the most. That same person – faced with limited career opportunities and possibly limited education – may also be prohibited from employment or licensing in many occupations, and may not be eligible for educational or tuition assistance due to his criminal history. Some states even ban drug felons from qualifying for welfare or food assistance programs. These adverse and stigmatizing societal consequences, administered after a person has already paid their debt to society, become a second round of judgment and sentencing.
Sadly, while these policies were implemented and rationalized to protect the law-abiding public from perceived risk, they have reinforced a social system that stigmatizes and marginalizes individuals with a criminal record well beyond their sentences.[iii] A national survey shared in the Wall Street Journal indicated that being arrested as a young adult, regardless of conviction, directly affected life’s outcomes. The table above highlights indicators of respondents who had been (1) arrested and convicted, (2) arrested and not convicted and (3) not arrested.[iv]
The Center for Community Alternatives conducted a survey of over 5,000 college universities to determine how they did or did not collect applicants’ arrest histories. The findings were used to provide a framework about the impact of this disclosure, and to provide recommendations for colleges in the future.[v]
The national movement, Ban the Box[vi], implores employers and schools of higher education to eliminate the box asking potential employees or students if they have ever been arrested or convicted of a crime at the beginning of the hiring or admission process. This allows the candidates to be considered on their own merits prior to divulging the circumstances of their past behavior.
More than 650,000 returning citizens will be released from prison in 2015, and most return to impoverished communities with few social supports and high crime rates. Without supportive employment programs, transitional housing programs and a network of social support programs that are not intent on continuing to stigmatize and punish, they will face the same situations and pressures that first brought them to prison. Eliminating the stigma that returning citizens experience will provide the best opportunity to be productive and law-abiding members of our communities.
[i] “65 Million Need Not Apply,” Michelle N. Rodgrigues, M. Emsellem. National Employment Law Project (NELP), March 2011.
[ii] Love, M. C. (2011). When the Punishment Doesn’t Fit the Crime: Reinventing Forgiveness in Unforgiving Times. Human Rights, 2-23.
[iii] Nora V. Demleitner, “Preventing Internal Exile: The Need for Restrcitions on Collateral Sentencing Consequences,” Stanford Law & Policy Review 11 (1999): 153, 159-60.
[iv] Fields, Gary, and John R. Emshwiller. “As Arrest Records Rise, Americans Find Consequences Can Last a Lifetime.” Wall Street Journal 18 Aug. 2014
[v] Weissman, Marsha; Rosenthal, Alan; Warth, Patricia; Wolf, Elaine; Messina-Yauchzy, Michael; Siegel, Loren (2010). The Use of Criminal History Records in College Admissions: Reconsidered. The Center for Community Alternatives (CCA): Innovative Solutions for Justice.
[vi] Ban the Box information can be found at:
National Employment Law Project , Accessed 7/6/15, http://nelp.3cdn.net/3f647dfd03b0567024_28m6br0wq.pdf.
All of Us or None, a program of Legal Services for Children. Accessed 7/6/15, http://www.prisonerswithchildren.org/our-projects/allofus-or-none/.