Issues facing Ex-Offenders

Punishment After Prison: Offenders who want to build new lives after prison face many obstacles.

When you do the crime, you do the time. Most inmates who are drawn to participate in Amicus programs have come to terms with this fact. They are the ones who find ways to see the prison time as having some potential positives: time to think, time to change. After release, adjusting to the many obligations of parole and probation can be a letdown-the “time” isn´t really finished yet-but offenders expect to serve this “time” as well.

The punishment that many don´t expect is not dispensed by the judge and the Department of Corrections. It´s the punishment dispensed by society to ex-felons, and it can last for a lifetime. Whatever changes they have made in their lives, ex-offenders face the loss (sometimes permanent) of many opportunities and privileges most of us take for granted.

“You´re supposed to pay your debt to society and then move on, but that´s not what happens,” says ex-offender Pablo Plunkett. “They are ex-offenders for the rest of their lives,” agrees Amicus´ former RECONNECT program director Dona Woltering. “They are never allowed to forget.”

Permission to Change

When writing his dissenting decision on the legality of denying the vote to ex-felons, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall argued that the denial of a right to vote hinders the efforts of society to rehabilitate former felons. We believe that indiscriminately denying ex-offenders access to housing, employment, and community acceptance has a similar chilling effect. If we really want offenders to change, we must give up the desire to continue to punish, and accept offenders back as members of our community. Amicus is committed to helping offenders build new lives-and to helping communities learn to welcome and encourage that change.

Losing the Vote

Voting is a right most Americans over 18 take for granted. An October 1998 report by The Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch shows that, for almost four million Americans with felony convictions, that right does not exist.

In all but four states, inmates are not permitted to vote-that accounts for one million people. About 30 states (including Minnesota) also deny the vote to those on parole and probation-another 1.4 million people. Fourteen states even bar ex-offenders who have completely served their sentences from voting for life-another 1.4 million. The United States appears to be the only country that permanently disenfranchises ex-offenders, and has more of its population stripped of the vote than any other democracy.

What are the results in Minnesota? The bottom line is that about 1.6% of the population is not permitted to vote. For African-American men, that number rises to an astonishing 17.8%. Since, in Minnesota, an offender serves one-third of his or her sentence in the community, and since probation is extensively used, offenders can be out working, paying taxes, and participating in community life for years without being able to vote.

Losing a Job

Difficulty finding work is another “community punishment.” Questions about criminal history are now a standard part of most job applications. “I´ve had people who have been out for twenty years decide to change jobs, and suddenly find to their shock that everyone does background checks now,” says Woltering.

The tight labor market in the Twin Cities has been a help to ex-offenders seeking work, but many employers still automatically reject ex-felons. A common experience is described by Geraldine, who sought work about a year after release (after getting married, having a child, and buying a house). Despite having job leads and good skills, she described feeling “less than nothing” and crushed by the looks and tones of voice she received when her record was made known.

An offender must often endure such an experience many times to find work. Lying on the application risks a background check exposing the lie, and also interferes with the new positive and law-abiding lifestyle the offender is trying to establish. The sting of employer rejection can combine with lack of money and excess free time to push offenders away from the community and back toward crime.

Losing the Lease

Likewise, background checks have become standard for most leases. With an affordable-housing crisis already making finding an apartment very difficult, having a felony record can be the kiss of death. “Landlords are particularly spooked by violent offenses, residential property offenses, and sex offenses,” says Woltering. Without a lease, offenders usually turn to family or old friends for a place to stay and may end up in a toxic environment. “I recently talked to an offender who had a history of addiction, but was trying to stay clean while living in a house full of users,” says Dona. An unstable housing situation increases the difficulty of getting and keeping a job as well.

Losing Social Connectedness

For a sex offender, punishment after prison carries additional components. Each offender is classified as Level I, II, or III based on offense, participation in treatment, and perceived public risk, and the community is notified accordingly. “There can be harassment that alienates the offender still more from the community,” says Dona. On a more subtle level, social rejection of all ex-offenders by the very communities they are trying to enter adds to the difficulty of building a new life.

Losing the Chance to Change

Should ex-offenders be “ex-offenders for the rest of their lives”? Many people say yes, sometimes loudly. On the issue of voting, it has often been argued that ex-offenders do not deserve to vote like “the rest of us.” Even for those citizens not bent on punishment, there is always concern for safety when offenders rejoin the community. Employers, landlords, and neighborhoods worry about risk and liability.

The danger is that the community can harden into a stance where offenders are not permitted to change for the better-a community that believes that past performance guarantees future results-a community that cuts off ex-offenders who are trying to change.

How can we balance punishment and acceptance, community safety and offender opportunity? How can we encourage offenders to overcome all these “community punishments” and reintegrate as positive members of the community? Amicus has answers.

Amicus Answers:

Amicus is founded on values that are directly opposed to the idea of “once an offender, always an offender.” Except to the extent that such a self-reminder is healthy and useful (similar to the reminder used by the person who has stopped drinking, but still calls himself an alcoholic), indiscriminately applying the brand of “ex-felon” to people who have completed their time serves little purpose. Instead, we believe that:

  • Offenders can and do change.
  • Hope is necessary for a person to grow and change.
  • The community benefits when offenders change their lives.
  • Everyone has the responsibility to create safer communities.

Amicus´ mission is to partner with offenders and communities to build successful lives and create safer neighborhoods. For more information about Amicus’ core strategies, please visit our Home page, Programs page and Profile.