“The United States is not a nation of criminals, and most collateral consequences do not advance public safety.” Most of them, the paragraph goes on to say, undermine it.
That’s from the conclusion of a report by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers regarding the so-called “collateral consequences” of convictions, which are the kinds of things that continue to punish people who were supposed to have paid their debt to society and which perpetuate a kind of social alienation that destroys lives. They make it so you can’t vote, get a job, find housing, get a license, obtain credit, qualify for benefits, or even, apparently, call bingo in the state of New York.
“The point is not to excuse or forget the crime; in the Internet era that wouldn’t be possible anyway. Rather, it is to recognize that in America’s vast criminal justice system, where 14 million people are arrested a year and 2.2 million are put behind bars (virtually all of whom will one day be released), second chances are imperative. It is in no one’s interest to keep a large segment of the population on the margins of society.”
It’s true. More than 65 million people in the United States, or more than one in four adults, have some form of criminal record. Maybe we arrest too many people in the first place.
The report was the work of a task force that heard testimony from over 150 witnesses and combed through statutes and scholarship for the better part of three years. The witnesses came not just from all sides of the justice system—including legislators, law enforcement, prosecutors, defenders, judges, and probation departments—but also from the broader community of businesses, employers, data firms, scientists, academics, nonprofits, churches, other community ministries, and of course, the population of people who have completed a sentence but continued to live with collateral consequences. They include sad tales of people who can’t live down even misdemeanor convictions from many years ago.
The net result is that we permanently consign a significant percentage of the public to a form of second-class citizenship. In the words of one researcher, “It sends people down a route that limits their life chances and sets up conditions that can lead them to commit additional crime. It makes it hard for people to have stability in their life. It’s not good crime policy and it doesn’t help to promote public safety.”
In the main, the NACDL report is comprised of ten core recommendations, which appear as follows from the general to the specific: