Celebrities who are faced with criminal charges should not be the only ones that serve their prison sentences and go back to living a normal life after they reenter society. After Martha Stewart ended her prison sentence, a well-known journalist wrote that she had “paid her dues,” and that “there is simply no reason for anyone to deny her right to leave her troubles in the past and start anew.” Sadly, this may be how people consider the release of celebrities from prison, yet not the general public who has served their time. Every citizen deserves a second chance—not just the rich and powerful. Yet many federal and state laws create post-conviction restraints on thousands of Americans who are prevented from fully re-paying their debt to society.
Currently there are nearly 65 million people, more than one in four adults, in the United States that have a criminal record, ranging from an arrest to a prison sentence. This can have major consequences that continue long after the punishment is complete, according to a new report by the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys.
Many of the penalties for criminal charges are mandatory and imposed regardless of the severity of the crime or the individual's circumstances. Certain laws can prevent those convicted, or even arrested for an alleged crime, from access to public housing and restrict them from voting, parental rights, a decent credit rating, and the ability to get a job or public benefits. There are about 45,000 laws that prohibit vast numbers of people from fully participating in American life.
Many laws are unfairly severe, such as not denying a woman who possessed a small amount of drugs 15 years ago from ever being able to be licensed as nurse. Many of these laws are also counter-productive, since they can make it nearly impossible for people with a criminal record to find housing or a job, which in turn often leads to hopelessness and then recidivism. These laws are most often applied to people of color and the poor. For example, African-Americans and Caucasians use marijuana at similar rates, yet African-Americans are arrested for possession of marijuana four times as often as Caucasians.
This report suggests the repeal of most mandatory sentences, except for those specifically needed to protect public safety. The report also recommends that the process for restoring a person's rights be simple, clear, and accessible. Some states and cities have taken measures to lift the burden of these laws. For instance, the New York City Housing Authority started a two-year program to house 150 people coming out of prison with their families. Also, in at least 12 states, employers are both protected and encouraged by hiring laws that provide incentives to hire applicants with a criminal record.
It's unfair to punish people who have already served their time and paid their dues for the crime they committed. Fourteen million people are arrested each year, with 2.2 million being sentenced to prison. Needless to say, we must have an avenue for redemption for those released from jail or prison. No one is beyond redemption. Every “ex-con” is deserving of a second chance.
For more on the report by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers: http://www.nacdl.org/restoration/roadmapreport/