As Michelle Alexander argues in chilling detail, inmates returning to the free world encounter a harsh reality. Once you leave the free world you never really return. Pragmatic law professor Stephanos Bibas believes these harsh policies encourage a return to criminal activity and points us in a more hopeful direction. If you have deep pockets and are curious about Bibas’s ideas you might take a look at his book, The Machinery of Criminal Justice.
Making inmates quit drugs, learn, and work can better prepare them to reenter society. But even after they have supposedly paid their debts to society and victims, our laws are remarkably unwilling to give them a second chance. Ex-cons face a web of laws and prejudices. Some exclude them from the polity symbolically, by forbidding them to vote, serve on juries, or hold public office.
Other laws harm them more tangibly by limiting where they can live and how they can work. After conviction, inmates are often shipped to distant prisons at the other end of the state, impeding family visits and straining or breaking family bonds. Even after they are released from prison, sex offenders and others are often forbidden to live within a thousand feet or so of schools, day-care centers, playgrounds, churches, and hospitals. In many urban areas, these residency restrictions rule out most of the city, in effect exiling or banishing ex-cons entirely. Likewise, licensing laws limit felons’ employment not only as police or schoolteachers, but also as embalmers or septic-tank cleaners.
The net is quite broad: sex offenders include not only child molesters, but also flashers, public urinators, or teenage lovers. And the effects are often perverse: Ex-cons may not be able to live with their families and neighbors, who might keep an eye on them. Instead, they may have to crowd into the same motels on the wrong side of the tracks and build new criminal networks. Likewise, when we deny felons the right to work in the profession for which they have trained, we may be consigning them to unemployment or crime.
There is little evidence that these laws make us safer. Predators on the prowl can easily travel a mile or two to commit their crimes. On the contrary, residency restrictions probably make us less safe, by clustering ex-cons and preventing them from reintegrating into their families. Thus, even one prosecutors’ group (the Iowa County Attorneys’ Association) has vocally opposed a residency law as ineffective and distracting from the core mission of preventing crime.
The point of punishment is not to ostracize wrongdoers into a permanent, embittered underclass, but to exact retribution and prepare them to return to the fold. Shame, embarrassment, even modest degradation are fitting so long as they are temporary, so wrongdoers can repudiate their wrongs and be seen to suffer enough to discharge their debts to society and victims. Only a small fraction of predators are hardened and dangerous enough to require permanent confinement or execution; most will return someday.
The left and the right ought to be able to unite behind a combination of restorative punishment followed by forgiveness. Indeed, one prominent group associated with the religious right has already come out against many collateral consequences on just this ground. The Prison Fellowship, founded by Chuck Colson, draws on Biblical language of forgiveness to support a dramatic narrowing of collateral consequences. Governments, they argue, should abolish all restrictions that are not related to the crime of conviction and not needed to protect the public. Though a powerful political ratchet keeps toughening collateral conseuqneces, conservative groups such as the Prison Fellowship can give politicians cover for ameliorating them.
Now, forgiving does not require forgetting. One can legitimately worry about the sincerity of a wrongdoer’s remorse or a sincerely repentant wrongdoer’s ability to resist future temptations. It is one thing to restore a drug dealer’s right to work as a bartender or plumber; it is another to license him as a pharmacist with access to prescription narcotics. Restoring rights requires difficult judgment calls about how severe the wrongdoer’s crimes were, how trustworthy he has become, and how sensitive the right in question is. But we should not be so afraid that we refuse to take any chances at all.
Finally, public-private partnerships can promote successful reentry. Public reentry programs remain woefully inadequate; many inmates are released from prison with no support other than a bus ticket and a few dollars. In response, some private groups such as Prison Fellowship’s InnerChange Freedom Initiative run reentry programs. Volunteers, often from local church congregations, mentor inmates and help to arrange for housing and jobs upon release.
Contact with mentors and congregations, empirical studies suggest, are crucial in holding ex-cons accountable and keeping them on a lawful path. The Establishment Clause issues with offering religious programming are manageable, so long as prisons are open to secular alternatives, state dollars don’t directly fund specifically religious activities, and religious programs receive no better facilities or perquisites.
Governments should try harder, but public reentry programs are woefully underfunded and unprepared to help the masses of released inmates. As long as there is no religious coercion, we should welcome all manner of private assistance to bring inmates home and give them the mentoring, accountability, and community reintegration they need.