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A Second Chance Agenda for Former Prisoners

David Callahan

Does America believe in second chances? In some cases, yes. Corporations get second chances all the time. For instance, nearly every major pharmaceutical company has been repeatedly fined by the Justice Department for either fraud or illegal marketing, and yet—because no individual executices are ever held accountable—most go on to break the law again. Ditto for many top financial firms.

Meanwhile, federal agencies routinely do business with major private contractors that have been caught defrauding the government in the past or broken other laws. And former insider traders like Michael Milken or Martha Stewart have been able to command lots of respect and attention after leaving prison. Disgraced policy officials guilty of federal offenses— say, like Elliott Abrams of Iran-Contra fame—get pardoned and then return again to high-level positions of power. Millionaire politicians like Eliot Spitzer are able to overcome scandal and get another shot at fame and influence. 

So, we Americans are pretty forgiving, right? Well, no: Not when it comes to poor people who have been previously incarcerated. Quite the contrary: Our society has a whole web of federal and state policies that punish people after prison until literally the end of their lives. 

Today, Attorney General Eric Holder will announce long overdue steps to wind down a mindlessly destructive war on drugs that has helped land so many people in prison. But keeping people out of prison is only part of the battle. We also need a serious agenda for giving people a second chance once they emerge from prison. And that means rolling back laws that discriminate against the previously incarcerated. 

In Washington, D.C., you can land a multi-billion dollar contract even though your company has previously been fined for fraud. But in New York and other states, you can't get a license to be a barber if you've been convicted of a felony. Many states bar ex-felons from working in a range of occupations—either for life or some period of time after completing their sentence. Florida has restrictions on 71 different occupations; New York has restrictions on over 100 occupations. Pennsylvania bars ex-offenders from working in most care-related facilities—a major source of low-wage employment in that state. 

One reason that so many employers use criminal background checks—a practice widely criticized in recent months because of the errors in such records -- is that so many sectors of the labor market are governed by state laws on the employment of ex-offenders. 

It's hard to know where to start in pointing out the idiocy of this legal regime. Many of these laws don't make any logical sense: Why in the world should ex-offenders be barred from being barbers in most U.S. states? Do we think they'll slit the throats of customers while shaving them? 

More seriously, of course, the last thing we want to do is to make it harder for ex-offenders to get jobs. Because if they can't find jobs, they are more likely to return to crime as a way to earn a living. So these laws put public safety at risk. 

Stopping ex-offenders from going to college is also counter-productive, yet both federal and state laws make it difficult for these individuals to get financial assistance. 

Groups like the Sentencing Project and CLASP have laid out a comprehensive policy agenda for rolling back the laws that make re-entry and re-integration so difficult for ex-offenders. It's great that the Obama Administration is changing course on the war on drugs. What they need now is a full-fledged strategy for dealing with the many collateral consequences of this war.