Criminal justice reform seems to make the rounds every election season without any significant changes taking place in the 21st century. Still, it’s getting a lot of play in the Democratic primary, with even more attention being focused on the subject since Virginia Governor Terry McAulliffe reinstated the voting rights of nearly a quarter million convicted felons with the swipe of a pen this year. That move has his opponents up in arms and taking him to court, but it reminds us to ask an important question when it comes to our nation’s prison system. If you’ve been convicted of a crime and done your time, with your debt to society allegedly paid off, how much longer should you be penalized for it? The rest of your life?

Sean Kennedy examines that question at the Washington Post this week and comes up with some intriguing ideas which are worth a look regardless of your ideological persuasion. The basic idea here (which I happen to agree with in principle) is that continuing to punish someone forever for crimes below the level of attempted murder, torture, rape and other crimes against humanity is not only unfair, but counterproductive.

But at the same time, offering a blanket restoration of every single right the moment a felon is released from jail isn’t an answer either. As Kennedy points out, the Justice Department finds that recidivism remains a serious problem. More than a third of released felons are arrested again within the first six months and a shocking 75% are back in jail within five years. That may all be part of a vicious circle which needs to be addressed, but clearly not all of them are ready to become productive, contributing citizens deserving of the right to vote and various other privileges.

So how do we proceed? Kennedy suggests we allow the released felon to earn their way back to full membership in civil society.

Regardless of [McAulliffe’s] restoration’s legality, neither side is right. Individuals with a felony conviction should not be given their rights back; they should have to earn them through hard work and by playing by the rules. The governor was wrong to issue blanket restoration to those convicted of offenses, ranging from murder to petty theft, and his Republican opponents are wrong to forever damn the convicted to a life beset by challenges.

In the Old Dominion alone, any person convicted of any felony faces 413 limitations and consequences after prison. These range from a ban on acquiring a “horse racing official permit” to work and living restrictions such as not being able to return to a licensed profession or being forbidden from residing with their adoptive children.

Instead of permanently barring felons from pursuing a full and truly free life outside prison, we should encourage them to rejoin their community and society as a whole through a post-release redemption-based system.

I like the sound of this, but it immediately begs the question of what criteria would be used to determine who has or has not “earned” the full restoration of all rights. How would that be quantified? Kennedy has some suggestions, not all of which I agree with, but they’re definitely worth debating.

States and the federal government should set out stringent criteria that ex-offenders must meet, including holding steady employment, making appropriate financial restitution to the state and their victims, paying taxes, liens and debts (e.g. child support) in a timely manner and participating in and serving the community. Most important, they must remain on the straight and narrow, free from criminal acts and convictions and from substance abuse.

Much of this makes sense. Applying a standard of not being convicted of anything else for six months or six years isn’t really much of a bar to set because six months of not being convicted may simply translate to six months of not getting caught. One of the best measures of rehabilitation is steady employment at a legal job. Unfortunately, having a prison record is something of a bar to employment, leading to that vicious circle I mentioned above. But we already subsidize certain jobs in the name of growing employment, so I wonder if even conservatives couldn’t get behind the idea of lower skill jobs being made available to former prisoners with willing employers who are facing problems managing labor costs through some sort of government wage subsidy program. It’s been tried on smaller scales before with varying levels of success.

The tracking of financial restitution, paid taxes and debts could be handled as part of the parole system I imagine. The substance abuse issue is a tough one, but mandatory drug and alcohol testing (also regulated through the parole officer) is probably the only way to go on that.

So would this work? Restored rights could come in stages, such as the ability to get business permits after six months, voting after a year and so forth. The real question I have with Sean’s plan is whether or not the felon could eventually have their records entirely sealed or expunged after a certain period of productive citizenship. That gives me an uneasy feeling, but it’s still worth having a debate over it.

PrisonHall