Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Prison that Follows Prison

If someone has been convicted of a felony, they are generally sentenced to prison. But what happens when they get out? Once they have served their time in prison, and have further satisfied whatever conditions are imposed by the court, be it probation, restitution or community service, haven't they then, according to the law, paid their debt to society?

Well, not necessarily. Some, but not all of their rights are restored. In some cases, this may even make sense-- for example, a convicted murderer or armed robber may be barred from purchasing a firearm, on the reasonably good assumption that they are likely to be a greater threat towards the rest of us than someone who has not committed these crimes in the past.

However, in some cases, we seem to be going beyond the pale in meting out punishment AFTER the punishment that the legal system decreed has been paid. In other cases, we are, simply by the mechanisms we put in place in society, setting them up to fail and return to crime (a career choice which is, after all, always available if no other options are).

For example, we say that convicted felons have the right to seek employment. However, we have for years cut the budgets for prison programs that seek to educate inmates about a trade (I have first hand knowledge of several educational institutions that suspended or ended their prison programs because of state or Federal budget cuts). We have also cut funding for job placement programs and halfway houses for prisoners. So, not surprisingly, when people who get out of a long term in prison with nothing to show on their resume other than a long stint in prison, have trouble getting a job, they often find that the easiest, and perhaps the only, way to earn a living wage, is through returning to a life of crime. This is called, 'recidivism.'

Now, I'm not going to stupidly sit here and say that if we funded more of these things, you wouldn't still have recidivism. Some people are habitual criminals and you could hand them a million dollars in cash and make them the CEO of a Fortune 500 Company, and the next day they would still be out running a con, knocking over a liquor store or beating someone up or raping or killing someone.
People like that need to be in prison, and there is little anyone can do to change that. But I am saying that regardless of the success rate (or failure rate) of rehabilitation programs, we as a society have an obligation to TRY. Because except for lifers or people on death row, the rest of the prison population will sooner or later be out among the rest of us, either rehabilitated or not.

Further, even when felons do try their best to change their lives, more hurdles are put up criticizing they and their benefactors. I lived in New Mexico when former house speaker Manny Aragon helped a felon from his community who was released from prison by hiring the man to work for his business and providing him with a home until he could get on his feet. When an article on this appeared in the paper, Aragon was visciously attacked by Republicans who saw an opportunity to 'get' the speaker, and called it 'coddling a criminal' for this act of good faith towards his fellow man. Right now, here in Arizona, we have the case of a man convicted of murder in Tucson in 1974 named James Hamm being opposed by a coalition of lawyers and others in terms of his application for a law license. Now, I understand that what Hamm did is the ultimate crime, and that no matter how remorseful he is, his victim won't come back, but if society collectively believes that the years he spent in prison were not punishment enough, then we (collectively) had the chance to sentence him to a more severe punishment-- a longer prison term, or even death. But he was not sentenced to any of these. Instead, he became one of the vanishingly few who not only became rehabilitated, but earned a law degree (turning his life around as much as it could be turned around). This isn't the first time Hamm has been in the paper either. A couple of years ago, Hamm had been approved (based on his college credentials) to teach a class at Arizona State University. A barrage of critism caused the University to revoke the contract. Apparently, some people believe that a felon has the right to seek employment, except when they actually get hired, when they should be punished further for their past by being fired.

Now, if we say that the justice system is meant to punish, then we should stick by a sentence and then once the terms of that sentence are met, accept that the perpetrator has been successfully punshed. If we don't like the sentencing guidelines, then we have the freedom to adjust them, and this has been done periodically. If we instead say that the purpose of the criminal justice system is to correct behavior that is unacceptable in a civilized society, then we have to acknowledge success in correcting behavior when a better person, one who can contribute to society legally and gainfully, comes out of prison than the one who went in.

So either way, whether we demand that the justice system punish, or that it correct, we have a definition of success. Once that definition has been met, we should, like the hopefully wiser former prisoner, look to the future rather than dwelling on (and in all likelihood increasing the chance that they will therefore return to) the past.

And what of the ultimate American right, the right to vote?

Well, laws regarding the rights of felons to vote vary widely from state to state. On one end of the spectrum, Alabama, Florida, Virginia and Kentucky have lifetime bans on felons voting. On the other end of the spectrum, Vermont and Maine allow even felons currently in prison to vote by mail. Other states are in between, some allowing felons who have finished their sentences (possibly including their probation) to vote, while some require that they apply for reinstatement before being able to vote. Now my question here is this: I can see the logic for preventing a felon, particularly one who has committed a violent crime, from buying a gun since the chance of recidivism in this case directly could lead to another person being harmed. But how does this justify preventing them from voting? Are they worried that a felon who slides into recidivism might intentionally vote for a corrupt politician like Tom DeLay?

Many people, when they hear the word, 'felon,' have a visceral reaction (particularly if they or someone close to them has been a crime victim), an almost violent gut reaction of fear and loathing towards felons (making, incidentally, no distinction between violent felons like murderers or rapists or nonviolent felons like embezzlers, auto thieves or drug dealers). I understand that is most people's reaction, but we have to get beyond that because to protect society from those who have harmed others requires that we work on constructive solutions that will prevent them from doing it again and add them to the ranks of society's law abiding citizens, instead of making them wear the proverbial scarlet letter on their foreheads.

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