In her book, “The New Jim Crow,” Michelle Alexander writes, that when a prisoner is released from incarceration, he or she enters a metaphorical universe in which discrimination in nearly every aspect of economic, political, and social life is legal.
Incarceration marginalizes vast portions of the African American and Hispanic communities. It ostracizes them physically (in prisons, jails, and ghettos), then sanctions discrimination against them in employment, education, housing, voting, and public benefits, according to Alexander.
According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics study, about 30 percent of released prisoners are rearrested within six months of release. Within three years, nearly 69 percent were rearrested at least once for a new crime. A small amount are rearrested for violent crimes; the vast majority are rearrested for property crimes, drug offenses and public disorder offenses.
For those released on parole, the risks of reincarceration are especially high. They may be stopped and searched (with or without their consent) for any reason. Parolees are at increased threat of arrest because their lives are governed by additional rules that do not apply to everyone else. Restrictions on their travel and behavior, such as a prohibition on associating with other felons, paying fines, remaining drug free, being employed, and meeting with parole officers, create opportunities for arrest. Violation of these special rules can land someone right back in prison.
Most ultimately return to prison, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Others are released again, only to find themselves in precisely the same circumstances they occupied before, unable to cope with the stigma of the prison label and their permanent pariah status.
Unless the laws and policies that keep ex-offenders marginalized from the mainstream society and economy are eliminated, those labeled felons will continue to cycle in and out of prison. Obtaining reform through local or state legislatures may be unlikely. Few politicians will leap at the opportunity to help people labeled criminals.
A myriad of laws, rules and regulations operate to discriminate against ex-felons and effectively prevent their reintegration into the mainstream society and economy. These restrictions amount to a form of “civic death.”
Anyone convicted of a felony is automatically ineligible for public housing assistance for at least five years. Even after the five-year period has expired, those labeled “criminals” face a lifetime of discrimination in the public and private housing markets. Housing discrimination against ex-felons (as well as suspected criminals) is legal.
People whose only crime is drug addiction or possession of a small amount of drugs could find themselves locked out of the mainstream society and economy — permanently. In 1996, President Clinton declared that public housing agencies should exercise no discretion when a tenant or guest engages in criminal activity, particularly if it is drug-related. In its final form, the act, together with the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998, not only authorized public housing agencies to exclude automatically (and evict) drug offenders and other felons; it also allowed agencies to bar applicants believed to be using illegal drugs or abusing alcohol —whether or not they had been convicted of a crime.
The “no-fault” clause contained in every public housing lease requires tenants to do far more than simply pay their rent on time, keep down the noise and make sure their homes are kept in good condition. The “One Strike and You’re Out” policy requires every public housing lease to stipulate that if the tenant or any member of the tenant’s household, or any guest of the tenant, engages in any drug-related or other criminal activity on or off the premises, and then tenancy will be terminated. Prisoners returning ‘home’ are typically the poorest of the poor, lacking the ability to pay for private housing and routinely denied public housing assistance.
Every state and the District of Columbia, requires parolees to “maintain gainful employment.” Failure to do so could mean more prison time for failing to fulfill a “condition” of parole. Nearly every state allows private employers to discriminate based on past criminal convictions. In fact, employers in most states can deny jobs to people who were arrested but never convicted of any crime.
For most people coming out of prison, a criminal conviction adds to their already problematic profile. About 70 percent of offenders and ex-offenders are high school dropouts. According to at least one study, about half are functionally illiterate. Their job prospects are forever bleak.
The most severely disadvantaged applicants in the job market are ex-offenders. A criminal record — regardless of race — harms the prospects of all job applicants. The stigma of a criminal record makes employers unwilling to hire them. The jobless rate for young black male dropouts, including those incarcerated, is a staggering 65 percent.
Welfare reform legislation signed by President Clinton in 1996, ended individual entitlements to welfare and provided states with block grants. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program (TANF) imposes a five-year lifetime limit on benefits and requires welfare recipients, including those who have young children and lack child care, to work in order to receive benefits.
The law also requires that states permanently bar individuals with drug-related felony convictions from receiving federally funded assistance. No exceptions are made to the felony drug ban. Accordingly, pregnant women, women raising young children, people in drug treatment or recovery, and people suffering from HIV/AIDS are ineligible for food assistance for the rest of their lives — simply because they were once caught with drugs.
However, there is another path. Rather than shaming and condemning an already deeply stigmatized group, we collectively, can embrace them — not necessarily their behavior, but them — their humanness, she says.