For felons, punishment should stop after prison

For felons, punishment should stop after prison

If someone commits a felony crime, gets a sentence, and serves their time, there is no reason to continue punishing that person after they leave prison. So why does it happen all the time? 

One of the many major flaws in our criminal “justice” system is that it restricts people from voting, attaining jobs and even owning firearms after they complete their sentence. This system fundamentally strips US citizens of their rights and impedes their ability for employment even though a court mandated sentence has been carried out. They are essentially being punished for the rest of their lives. 

The point of going to prison is to isolate someone who committed a crime from the general population, arguably the best option our society has come up with. While the most ideal form of imprisonment would be rehabilitation, that does not seem to be a priority for many people. Our mass prison-industrial complex, now largely privatized, seems to want to keep people locked up. While they are locked up, they are separated from their families and communities, often forced into complete isolation, and generally live in conditions the rest of us would refuse. 

Once a person with a felony has served their sentence, they should no longer have to suffer the consequences of their actions. This means that their criminal history should be sealed from employers and that their constitutionally mandated rights be automatically restored. However, I do believe there should be exceptions to this rule, such as for those convicted of the most serious of crimes such as murder, rape, crimes against children and other similar offenses. 

Those with mostly non-violent felony offenses, though, should automatically be able to have their rights restored and should be able to withhold their criminal information from a future employer. 

For many people convicted of felonies, there might not be any motivation to achieve a stable career after their sentence is served because of the lack of opportunity that now exists. This lack creates a negative feedback loop that thrusts many people back into what landed them in prison in the first place. A convicted drug dealer knows that he or she will have a hard time finding employment with a felony charge, therefore, the most viable option may be to continue selling drugs. 

This negative feedback loop has institutionally affected specific groups of people disproportionately, especially black people. Since the time of post-slavery law enforcement, many black Americans were essentially forced back into slavery through the prison system for very minor crimes. As time has progressed, we see the continuation of this through President Nixon and President Reagan waging a “war on drugs,” which criminalized crack cocaine more severely than most other drugs — directly and disproportionately affecting blackcommunities who used crack, and not the white, suburban communities using cocaine. Harsh sentencing laws, such as mandatory minimums were then mandated by President Clinton, in which the circumstances of crimes did not matter in sentencing. Currently, we have three-strike laws where repeat felony offenders get sentenced to life in prison on for their third offense, whether it was violent or not. 

None of these policies have effectively addressed the root cause of the crime problem, but only provided legislation that reinforces already established, poor legislation and its effect on black and minority populations. We must reconcile our poorly established prison-industrial system with how it affects people for the rest of their life. 

This means we must stop punishing those convicted with felonies after they have served their sentence. We must restore their voting rights and other constitutional rights immediately after they serve a sentence. We must allow those who have served their sentence to not carry a stigma into future employment. It is us who have created this penal system, and it is us who must deal with the consequences of the lack of rehabilitation in our criminal justice system. 

Until real and effective rehabilitation comes to the forefront, we must reconcile centuries of injustice by restoring dignity to those who have committed and served their sentence. 

Zach Boros is a sophomore majoring in psychology. His column runs biweekly. 

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