Wednesday, June 9, 2010

American Untouchables?

My favorite blogger on ex-offender employment issues had an interesting post on felons as the new “untouchables class” last week.

Kathleen Murray wrote about an interview on NPR’s Tell Me More show with Michelle Alexander about her new book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Murray shared:

What jumped out at me was her reference to caste. We here in America like to think of ourselves as living in the land of equal opportunity, I know. But this particular term is one that’s come up a lot in my discussions about the offenders and the criminal justice system, lately. An offender turned reentry advocate I talked to a while back put it even more bluntly:
“I think we as humans need an untouchable class. Before it was race that held people down, now it’s that you’re branded and ostracized because you’re an ex-offender.”

Are ex-offenders the new “Untouchables”? I would answer yes. But like Kathleen Murray, I would also add that it is a matter of balance.

Often discussions on this topic forget that the criminal justice system is about punishment for crime. There needs to be consequences for criminal behavior. But crime shouldn’t disqualify a person from ever again becoming a contributing member of society once they complete their punishment.

Research shows the top factor for reducing recidivism over 5 years is whether an ex-offender can find and keep employment. With the cost of incarcerating someone at an average of $20,000 a year, it’s in society’s interest to help former prisoners find work. To permanently bar felons from employment, whether because of active policies or insurance barriers, does create a permanent sub-class with additional costs related to future incarceration. The best way to reduce crime is to help ex-offenders find productive work.

One only has to watch Les Miserables to see how humanity has struggled with this issue for hundreds of years…the balance between grace and the law, crime and consequences.

It’s hard to miss that our current world has chosen to become unforgiving when a criminal act leads to a lifetime of consequences from never-ending punishment.

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