Once convicted criminals do their time and successfully complete probation, their punishment is over. They are then free to begin reintegrating into society, with every opportunity to become law-abiding citizens.
At least, that’s the theory. But the clean-slate scenario doesn’t really match reality.
In fact, more than 48,000 federal and state civil laws and regulations restrict the activities of ex-offenders and curtail their liberties after they get out of prison and complete probation. Experts estimate that local ordinances impose thousands of similar restrictions, as well.
These restrictions are known as “collateral consequences” of conviction (as opposed to “direct consequences,” such as imprisonment). Typically, those who impose and defend collateral consequences do so in the name of public safety.
Some collateral consequences — such as prohibitions against violent felons possessing a firearm or restrictions against pedophiles operating a day-care center — are clearly warranted. But others do not seem grounded in the interests of public safety. Rather, they seem designed primarily to continue punishing people who have already served their sentences.
Such restrictions can severely hamper an ex-offender’s ability to get a job or a professional license. This, of course, undermines the public interest in rehabilitating criminals and helping them become productive members of society.
Ohio law, for instance, provides for the suspension or revocation of an ex-convict’s driver’s license upon conviction of some crimes that are entirely unrelated to driving. Why restrict an ex-offender’s ability to get or drive to a job or to pick up his children from school if that individual poses no greater risk to people on the road than any other driver?
Of the tens of thousands of identified collateral consequences on the books, 60-70 percent are employment-related, despite the fact that unemployment is a top predictor of recidivism. Virginia, for example, has over 140 mandatory collateral consequences that affect employment. They range from disqualification from holding any state “office of honor, profit, or trust,” to ineligibility to become a notary public.
Ohio imposes more than 500 mandatory collateral consequences that restrict opportunities to become a contractor or truck driver. Other states bar ex-offenders from pursuing occupations such as street peddling, cab driving and construction.
More than 95 percent of those sent to prison will eventually serve their time and return to our communities. But they face long odds when it comes to trying to put their past behind them. In addition to enduring the stigma associated with being convicted criminals, many ex-offenders have substance-abuse issues, limited education, and limited job skills and experience.
Some employers may be concerned about a lawsuit for “negligent hiring” (not to mention adverse publicity) should an ex-offender employee harm a customer. Some insurers may refuse to insure or will raise the premiums of companies that hire ex-offenders. Adding unnecessary and onerous collateral consequences on top of all that can make reintegration into society all but impossible for many ex-convicts.
Legislators should reassess the collateral consequences within their jurisdictions to ensure that they are necessary to protect the public, reasonably related to the offense committed, and not capable of being enforced indiscriminately or arbitrarily. Any restriction that does not satisfy these parameters should be amended or repealed.
It is a sad reality that many, if not most, ex-offenders will end up committing additional crimes, thereby posing a continuing threat to public safety. Doubtless many of them would have returned to a life of crime regardless of any collateral consequences imposed upon them.
But many others who desperately want to turn over a new leaf and become productive, self-reliant, law-abiding members of society find themselves thwarted by collateral consequences.
It is not in anyone’s best interests to consign ex-offenders to a permanent second-class status. Doing so will only lead to wasted lives, ruined families and more crime.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times