Life Sentences And Civil Death

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High unemployment among blacks and Latinos is partly explained by the social stigma and legal barriers encountered by people who were once incarcerated.

Photo by: Jarrett Murphy

High unemployment among blacks and Latinos is partly explained by the social stigma and legal barriers encountered by people who were once incarcerated.

The powers that be are trying to make some sense of the extremely high unemployment rates blacks have here in New York State and across the country. Civil rights leaders recently met with President Obama to discuss his jobs agenda, and to suggest that he use “targeted measures” to combat joblessness in communities of color. There have been panel-discussions, forums and lectures from some of the premier thinkers and educators this country has to offer.

Yet, with all of these great minds discussing black unemployment, only a few key organizations have considered how the high conviction and incarceration rates of blacks relate to high unemployment. Every state in this country has laws which restrict or prevent ex-offenders from enjoying the same rights and privileges other citizens enjoy.

Ex-offenders are often restricted from working in law enforcement agencies, fire departments, hospitals, nursing homes, banking institutions, public schools, colleges and universities. These restrictions do not take into account the antiquity of the crime, the age of the person at the time the crime was committed or the relationship of the crime to these jobs. If you are an ex-offender in the United States of America, you are legally barred from a significant percentage of the gainful employment in this country.

Furthermore, as if these restrictions were not enough, federal and state lawmakers found it necessary to also allow landlords, creditors, licensing agencies and public and private employers to legally discriminate on them as well. For instance, with few exceptions and limitations, an employer can legally consider the criminal histories of applicants.

It is no wonder why most newly released ex-offenders return to prison within three years. According to the Department of Justice, there are over 81 million people with criminal convictions in the United States today. Over 600,000 people are released from United States prisons every year. Although blacks make up only 17 percent of the New York State population and 12 percent of the United States population, they represent a staggering 51 people of people arrested, prosecuted and convicted of crimes.

Once a person is convicted of a crime and has completed their court-ordered sentence, a secondary wave of sanctions begins—one that is worse than the court ordered penalties. There are many different terms used to describe these secondary penalties: “collateral consequences” and “felony disenfranchisement” are two. But “Jim Crow” or “civil death” are more accurate.

These barriers make it almost impossible for an ex-offender to be a law-abiding citizen. Children are also adversely affected. When federal and state legislators pass laws that restrict the employment opportunities of ex-offenders, they do not take into consideration the innocent children and family members who are affected in the process.

Ex-offenders convicted of drug crimes are barred from receiving food stamps or student aid and from living in public housing complexes where their families may reside. Many ex-offenders end up in homeless shelters.

The good news is that states all across the country are beginning to see the fiscal folly in using incarceration and post-incarceration civil penalties as the main weapon in combating criminal behavior. The State of Hawaii placed a limit on employer’s consideration of criminal convictions that are more than 10 years old. Also, the states of Hawaii and New Mexico and the city of San Francisco have all implemented “Ban the Box” policies, which are becoming very popular across the country, and remove the question or box “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”

New York State is considering a similar move in bill A05330 sponsored by New York State Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, which would essentially ban the box on job applications. This bill desperately needs to be passed in this legislative session. Rehabilitated ex-offenders deserve a fair chance at gainful employment. We need to seriously take a look at the role criminal conviction discrimination plays in black unemployment in New York City and indeed all across the country.

Eric M. Deadwiley is the author of “Civil Death in New York State: How New York State Utilizes Criminal Conviction Records To Impede The Economic Growth Of Formerly Convicted People”

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