Saturday, July 27, 2013

Paying your debt to society...paying and paying

As many ex-cons as this country has created, you’d think we would love them. Not only do we not love them, we want to make sure they live the rest of their lives with as many disadvantages as possible. Who pays the price? The entire community.

Twenty-years ago David Koch was convicted of a crime in Alaska. The crime wasn’t deemed serious enough to warrant incarceration. A jail sentence was suspended. Koch was given two-years probation. Koch completed his sentence and hasn’t reoffended. He moved to Cody, working as a radio announcer. You’d think he had paid his debt to society and could move on. But no.

Pat Nolan knows how this works. Nolan was once the powerful Republican leader of the California House of Representatives. His life changed when he was arrested for taking illegal contributions. Nolan spent two years in prison.

His political career over, his real life began. Chuck Colson, one of the casualties of Watergate, started Prison Fellowship. Colson recruited Nolan. That was the early 1990s. Today Nolan serves as the director of PF’s Center for Justice Reform.

Nolan came to Wyoming in 2000 to support drug courts and other common sense changes in Wyoming’s criminal justice system. He made an impression on lawmakers that has since waned.

David Koch’s case speaks to how much reform is needed in Wyoming and America’s justice system.

Despite an electorate who feels we should lock criminals up and throw away the key, we don’t. Nearly all are eventually released. The length of Nolan’s time in prison is about average. Legislators debate how long sentences should be but seldom ask whether the system returns convicts to the community as better persons than when they went to prison.

We incarcerate at an irrational rate, using expensive prison cells for people who could be safely rehabilitated in the community using practices proven to work. We then impose additional burdens on their ability to rejoin the community.

A prison sentence is only the beginning of the price a convict pays. Nolan cites an article in the Journal of the American Bar Association. The title makes the case. "Ex-offenders face tens of thousands of legal restrictions, bias and limits on their rights."

The ABA reports incarceration has become such a routine response to crime that one in five Americans is an ex-con. Many enter prison already disadvantaged with low education levels, mental health and substance abuse diagnoses, spotty job records, and little family support. When they come out things get worse. They reenter the community with the enormous stigma of being an ex-con. The ABA says “today’s ex-offenders could face up to 50,000 legally mandated collateral consequences, including restrictions on housing, employment, public benefits and immigration.”

Enter David Koch. Twenty-years after serving his time, paying the price…the law still wants a piece of his flesh. It isn’t enough that he has become an honest, contributing member of the community. Two decades later, the law says he can’t even vote. He did. Now he faces five years in jail and a 10,000-dollar fine, as well as the loss of his job and standing.

The case reminds me of the admonition of a professor in my first year of law school. When students argued the outcome of a case was “unfair” he suggested we walk outside and read the sign on the front of the building. This is not, he said, a school of fairness. This is a College of Law. There is a difference and it is one that does not make the community safer.

Legislators seldom want to work hard enough to find real answers to complex problems. When it comes to criminal justice, constituents don’t reward politicians who advocate for reforms. But jail cells are enormously expensive, especially when filled by aging inmates. Even more expensive is recidivism. When policies and the law combine to create little more than a revolving prison door, the community is not safer, the costs soar and lives that could be redeemed are lost.

No comments:

Post a Comment