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Civic responsibility: Society owes a debt to ex-convicts

Ex-cons cannot be expected to be contributing members of society with their rights and privileges stripped from them. | Jennifer Gonzalez/The Cougar

After prisoners pay their debts to society, society owes them a promise in return. We owe them a promise that they will not face discrimination for their criminal histories and that they will have the opportunity to escape scenarios in which they are likely to reoffend and go back to prison.

This debt is rarely paid, and societies are endangered by further marginalizing those who have committed crimes. The time for transformative prison legislation is long overdue, and this late fine has cost millions of people.

Felons — more than 70 million people — face a loss of employment, affordable housing and access to other forms of government assistance, like food stamps, as a result of tough-on-crime policies set in the 1990s by President Bill Clinton at the height of the War on Drugs.

According to the Sentencing Project’s 2016 study on felony disenfranchisement, an estimated 6.1 million people are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction — a figure that has escalated dramatically in recent decades as the population under criminal justice supervision has increased.

The study also found that one in 13 African-Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate more than four times greater than that of non-African-Americans.

UH educational psychology professor Augustina Reyes, a scholar of the school-to-prison pipeline in underprivileged communities, showed me the body of work by a national scholar and Harvard sociologist who studies the prison re-entry cycle, Bruce Western.

Western conducted a two-year study in Massachusetts prisons that focused on the conditions that most prisoners face upon release. Western discussed the findings of this study with the Harvard Gazette in February 2015.

“I think probably the most striking finding is that just about everyone leaves prison and enters poverty,” Western said. “About 85 percent of our respondents, by the end of their first year out, enrolled in food stamps.”

While significant progress has been made in getting food stamps for ex-prisoners, an 2016 article from The Marshal Project states that six states — Wyoming, West Virginia, Alaska, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina — still don’t comply fully with the ban.

In Mississippi, Georgia, West Virginia and South Carolina, many of these prisoners are black. Without employment opportunities, housing and food, they are some of the most vulnerable members of the population.

Ban the Box, a movement geared toward ending employment discrimination against ex-cons, received a recent rise in popularity under the endorsement of President Barack Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder.

Job and housing applications require that applicants disclose a criminal history. According to the National Employment Law Project, just nine states have removed the box that requires this disclosure from their application forms. For ex-cons in other states, limited employment and housing opportunities, and the chance of re-offending is increased.

Though it is true that committing crime morally implicates the perpetrator, we too often fail to discuss the systemic factors that contribute to the likelihood that people will enter prison. Imprisoning Americans has become an industry, and its role as an economic system rather than a civic one, might contribute to the difficulties that ex-cons face.

In other words, the United States is creating a new class: a criminal class. It is engineering an exploitable class of citizens who are virtually given no choice but to re-offend, fill another prison bed and pay into private-prison corporations.

As a social institution, prison is supposed to be a place where people are sent so that they can make amends and move on with their lives after they serve their time. Instead, it has been used as a tool that reinforces a social caste system.

The men and women who serve prison sentences for nonviolent crimes, like drug possession, leave with prison records that forever change their ability to vote, earn a livable wage and participate in the key aspects of life that allow people to escape the cycle of poverty and racism that has made the prison system quintuple in size in the past 50 years.

We have a civic responsibility to the people who have served their debt to society. We need to realize that welcoming them back does not make us less safe; it provides a profound moral and legal service to a disadvantaged segment of society.

Assistant opinion editor Mia Valdez is a creative writing senior. She can be reached at [email protected].

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