Punishing Felons After They’ve Served Their Time

For one of the starkest illustrations of the retributive model of justice adopted in the United States, look to the way we continue to punish felons after they’ve already served their sentences. In a curious state of affairs, despite the fact that the court officially deems time served once a sentence has been completed, people who have spent time in prison as felons will continue to experience restrictions of social and civil rights when they complete their sentences (and probation, if they are allowed out on probation, which is not necessarily a guarantee).

Many states continue to deny felons the vote, despite the fact that felon disenfranchisement laws smack of nothing other than discrimination. At the same time felons are told they need to get ready to rejoin society and participate as active members, they’re restricted from participation in one of our most fundamental social rituals and ceremonies, the electoral process. The state denies people who have experienced the system firsthand an opportunity to participate in its regulation and reform through the ballot box, and citizens appear comfortable with the fact that felons in their community do not have the vote.

Telling, of course, that given the racial disparities in the US prison system, such disenfranchisement inevitably also has a heavy racial component. Historically, Black people were denied the right to vote de jure, as a collective social group. Now, de facto denials cover large swaths of the Black community, even as the President and First Lady of the United States are Black—many of their constituents are victims of a racist justice system and cannot participate in elections, thereby reinforcing a society dominated by white views and political preferences.

But felon disenfranchisement isn’t the only way in which felons are punished after they have left prison behind. They’re also barred from participation in welfare programmes in many states, depending on the structure of the programme and the nature of the offense. For example, some bar drug offenders from food assistance, making it impossible for them to access help with getting nutritionally balanced food sources, which is a definite barrier to drug and alcohol recovery.

Other programs bar participation for different types of felony offenses, with varying consequences. The end result is that felons retain an effectively persecuted relationship with the government, as their crimes never fully leave them and their punishment rolls on despite the fact that they have complied with their prison sentences. This combines with considerable social stigma to put former felons in a very uncomfortable position. Many have trouble getting and keeping jobs because of their criminal history, and when that entangles with trouble accessing social assistance, it can leave felons vulnerable.

The government claims to be concerned about the risk of recidivism and a return to felonious activities after leaving prison, arguing that many criminals become trapped in a criminal lifestyle. Is this truly how it works, though, or are former felons instead forced into it by the restrictions on their activities created by the government? Because herein lies an important question, and one that should be playing a bigger role in policy when it comes to the handling of the justice system, prison programs, and felons who have served their time and left prison.

One might reasonably argue that if a sentence has been completed, that former felon’s time is done, and that person doesn’t owe anything else to society. That, in fact, the individual might benefit from social support while adjusting to the outside world, including access to food stamps, housing support, drug and alcohol treatment programmes, job training, and other reintegration tools. With that support, the ex-felon is less likely to return to criminal activity, because there’s a network in place to create a secure place for developing better life habits and patterns.

When, however, no support is provided to someone who leaves prison, especially if that person has been incarcerated for a decade or longer, it creates a very different and difficult situation. The ex-felon may have unstable relationships with people on the outside, no personal safety net, and difficulty accessing support due to the criminal past that will come up on background checks and in job interviews and consultations with programme providers. Consequently, fewer and fewer options become available, pushing the ex-felon into a corner and leaving few choices.

That the state should continue to play shocked and appalled at recidivism rates is revolting in the face of evidence that people who are not provided with social support have few other choices. When your employment and housing options are limited by the marks against your names, what do you turn to? That which you know becomes appealing, especially when you feel powerless in the face of a system that denies you the right to participate; you can’t vote, you can’t engage directly with the supposed democracy you live in, and you can’t even get help eating healthy food that nourishes you and helps you sustain long-term life changes.

Where’s the social benefit in denying social programmes to felons? In the long term, it’s actually rather costly, as recidivism leads to more time in the justice system and more expenses for society. Neglecting ex-felons certainly doesn’t serve as a deterrence system for people considering criminal activity, because they’re already aware of their decreased social status and the way in which they are viewed by society. Pushing felons into unsustainable systems arguably makes society unsafer, endangering not just people exiting the prison system but also the people around them.

When will the United States be ready to make some serious decisions about the way in which it administers justice? Does it want to continue using a retributive system that contributes substantial harm and expense to society, or would it like to transition to a harm reduction model focused on addressing the root causes of crime?