The American criminal justice system does in fact protect society from killers, assaulters, rapists, repeat DUI offenders, and those who pose a serious threat. However, it also mentally and emotionally damages people with nonviolent criminal records who pose no physical threat. It brands them as “ex-criminals,” making it extremely difficult for potentially productive citizens to find employment, housing, or food; exercise their civil rights; and maintain their mental stability.
I originally published an article that was titled “90% of Those You Call Criminals Shouldn’t be Labeled as Criminals Forever.” After receiving over 7,200 shares and likes on social media, responses from those branded as criminals started flowing in.
…many years after arrest, Americans feel the undue burden of a criminal record
Many of the comments mentioned the consequences of having a criminal record. Over 40,000 laws nationwide saddle people with civil disabilities, effectively ostracizing them from society. According to the Concordance Institute, civil disabilities are “punishments carried over from the European practice of ‘civil death’ in which a person was permanently excluded from civic participation as a result of certain criminal convictions.”
Thus, many years after arrest, Americans feel the undue burden of a criminal record. As one person wrote, “the mistakes I made 20 years ago have held me back from so much.”
Another comment came from a former Army Ranger who spoke about having PTSD and the hardships such a mental disability brings, on top of having a nonviolent criminal record. When he had no money, no job, and a head full of despair, he broke into a store so he could get some food and was charged with breaking and entering. Having served his time and paid his debt to society, he lamented his status as an outsider: “I just want my rights as an American back.”
A father of three wrote in to say that he has a nonviolent criminal record and hasn’t been able to get a good job. Every time he applies for employment that provides benefits, he gets shut down by the question, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” Broad stroke interpretation is what he feels society accords him.
Then there are people who can’t vote and participate in the democratic process; they are seen as less than human. One person said, “The right to vote is the right on which all other laws and liberties are hinged. It’s like the right to breathe.” Once people serve their time and pay their debt to society, this writer argued, they should be allowed Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Staggering numbers show that the U.S. accounts for only five percent of the world’s population yet holds twenty-five percent of its prison population. Many experts attribute this unfortunate state of affairs to the War on Drugs era. Many low-level drug offenders get mandatory minimum sentences that are far greater than the sentences received by some killers. How is that justice?
Staggering numbers show that the U.S. accounts for only five percent of the world’s population yet holds twenty-five percent of its prison population.
Well, according to Republican Senator Rand Paul, it isn’t. During the 2016 Republican debates, he noted, “I’ve been trying to look for solutions to our criminal justice problem…I also think the War on Drugs has disproportionately affected our African American community. And what we need to do is make sure the war on drugs [provides] equal protection under the law and we don’t unfairly incarcerate another generation of young African American males.”
Hillary Clinton said during an address, “Keeping [nonviolent offenders] behind bars does little to reduce crime, but it does a lot to tear apart families and communities. It’s time to change our approach and end the era of mass incarceration in America.”
A final submission brought logic to the table: “I agree that one should not commit crimes in the first place, but there has to be an effort to ensure these people are able to successfully reenter society and become productive members of it, so they are less likely to return to crime, because they have no other way to make ends meet.”
The well-known philosopher Augustine wrote, “An unjust law is no law at all.” The way people with criminal records are saturated with further punishments—after they have already paid their debts to society—is unjust and degrades human dignity.