Discussing the impact of imprisonment on felons after their release, professor of law at Northeastern University Michael Meltsner, spoke this past Thursday at the Campus Center.
Meltsner headlined the 13th Annual Dean Alfange Jr. Lecture. The annual lecture serves to honor Alfange, a former professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts from 1967 to 1999.
Meltsner’s speech entitled “Degradation Ceremonies: Constitutional and Statutory Limits of the Punishment After Punishment” focused on the lack of opportunities those who have been released from prison face after incarceration.
“In doing my research for [Muhammad] Ali, I found how conviction can ruin opportunities for life,” Meltsner said. “Convictions can result in forfeiture of businesses and houses, being denied welfare, and can affect deportation. Following convictions of not just felonies but even misdemeanors can cause collateral consequences.”
He also spoke about the disproportionate number of minorities incarcerated and the systemic racism this represents for our country.
“One in six African American young men will find themselves in prison. There needs to be acknowledgement that race and ethnicity has a huge impact on whether an ex-offender will get hired.” Meltsner said.
He continued, “We have a great deal of evidence that getting ex-offenders jobs is beneficial. There are so many structures and players today that seem to ignore evidence, it’s as if evidence is not the way we should make decisions.”
When asked how he thinks we might be able to somewhat resolve the issue, Meltsner acknowledged the systemic racial inequality deeply ingrained in our justice system, but added that he felt public focus on the topic could help to move along reform.
“Public cases and Supreme Court cases often shift public opinion. Take for example, gay rights legislation. I think the issue is ripe for the same treatment,” Meltsner concluded before opening the floor to questions from the audience.
After the speech, director of legal studies at the University Paul Collins said, “In a talk about punishment after punishment within the legal system, the obvious racial undertones were not surprising.”
When Meltsner was asked after the speech whether he felt prison reform under President Donald Trump was doubtful, Meltsner answered, “Yes. Every action taken by his attorney general has suggested a return to more punitive policies.”
Dean Alfange Jr., for whom the lecture is named, was also in attendance. “It was a fascinating speech, I feel so lucky that we have a program that brings in scholars of such high caliber and quality like Mr. Meltsner,” Alfange said.
While at UMass, Alfange served as the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences from 1971 to 1975, and acting provost in 1975. Meltsner served as counsel in many 1960s civil rights cases, including representing Muhammed Ali in the court case which gave him back his right to box. In addition, he was first assistant counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the 60s as well.
Crystal Paul, director of administration and research for the political science department at UMass, helped to organize the event and felt it was a great success: “We do event planning in conjunction with advisory board meetings. It takes months of planning to secure a speaker as we are already working on next year’s speaker.”
Jacqueline Hayes is a Collegian correspondent and can be reached at [email protected]