The cyclical path of increasing incarceration

By Benjamin Clabault

(Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
(Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

President Barack Obama recently became the first sitting president to visit a prison and blamed the “War on Drugs” for perpetuating our country’s “long history of inequity in the criminal justice system.”

The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that in 2013, our current system placed approximately 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons. Our incarceration rate is the highest in the world.  It takes little reflection to realize that this represents gross injustice and an intolerable contradiction with our self-proclaimed status as the “land of the free.”

But we must also understand that the injustice does not only affect Americans currently behind bars. It also hurts all the people who have finished serving prison sentences but continue to suffer through disenfranchisement and lack of economic opportunity. The 1.5 million statistic only speaks to a portion of the people crushed by a system that emphasizes a supposed toughness on crime over the well-being of its citizens.

People released from prison face a long list of legal obstacles that hamper their pursuit of a better life. These collateral consequences come in the form of various civil sanctions on the state and federal levels. The American Bar Association cataloged over 46,000 restrictions faced by convicted felons, from voter disenfranchisement to an inability to acquire professional certifications. George Washington University law professor Stephen Saltzburg says about 60 to 70 percent of those sanctions concern employment.

We should be encouraging post-incarceration employment, not so severely limiting it. Easing restrictions would create a more just standard for punishment, and also lower recidivism rates and improve the economy. In a 2010, study the Center for Economic and Policy Research estimated that the United States economy loses between $57 billion and $65 billion every year by impeding convicted felons’ employment opportunities.

Of course restrictions cannot be lifted altogether. Nobody thinks convicted rapists should be allowed to teach, or that someone imprisoned after multiple DUI’s should be allowed to drive a city bus. But a one-size-fits-all approach that lumps all convicted felons into the same category makes no sense. No one should be denied the opportunity to acquire a trade license because they got caught dealing cocaine a decade ago.

We need to remain vigilant in tweaking our criminal justice system. For too long, people have accepted a system that obsesses over protecting potential victims while ignoring the actual effects policies have on the convicted criminals. Yes, we must keep innocent people safe, but a system that does nothing to rehabilitate individuals and everything to encourage a prolonged life of crime only contributes to the maintaining of a criminal culture.

When people are in prison, we should be giving them the tools they need to succeed in the modern economy. Once they are out, we need to give them the opportunity to actually utilize those skills for both their own benefit and society’s.

In 2010, the Uniform Law Commission proposed a model bill that would allow ex-inmates to petition for exemptions to certain restrictions. In typical conservative fashion, Indiana lawyer James Bopp dismissed the proposal as a “liberal do-gooder thing.”

But such legislation does not represent the foolish optimism of bleeding hearts, but rather the careful consideration of people who have realized that we can be tough on crime without encouraging its reproduction. Let’s push ex-cons into the workforce, not back into prison. That way, we all win.

Benjamin Clabault can be reached at [email protected]