Congress Set to Dump “Second Chance for Ex-Offenders Act”
The prisons are full, recidivism rate 65-70 percent, system is broken, can’t afford it any more, something must be done; we need judicial reform and a just released study confirms that the good old US of A has the highest prison population rate in the world, 756 per 100,000 of the national population. Does any of this sound familiar? Of course it does if you have been paying attention, or have any involvement with our “justice” system.
Well here is the answer. “It’s The Jobs Stupid,” borrowing the title of The-Slammer’s recent article. But if that’s really the answer, why, in spite of all of the good intentions of everyone working to implement re-entry/job programs, a number of them profiled on this web site, is it almost impossible for ex-offenders to find meaningful employment? Could it possibly be because we throw many more roadblocks in their path than can be imagined, and that there are more people placing roadblocks than there are those trying to clear the way? The worst roadblock builder is the justice system itself, as it is largely designed in a way that perpetuates failure. If the system isn’t broken, it is certainly badly bent.
There are too many ways to become an ex-offender to discuss, but I am going to highlight one offender group that probably has more difficulty finding employment than any other: the felons. Now STOP that! I know what you thought when I wrote “felons.” Yes I did know, because my reaction used to be exactly the same. If we are going to have an intelligent exploration of this issue, you must first forget your preconceived, television-generated ideas of what a felon is. Here is what the dictionary says: “The Federal government defines a felony as a crime which involves a potential punishment of one year or longer in prison.” That’s it, one year or longer. Are you getting there? You are going to have a hard time from here on if you can’t stop thinking Charles Manson or Jack the Ripper when you hear the word “felon.” That’s a whole different ballgame.
I’ll narrow it down a little more. We are only going to talk about the first-time nonviolent offender. We are going to talk about those like the twenty-something-year-old young lady whose “felony conspiracy” charge in a marijuana case was so far removed from the real crime that her punishment was twelve months probation. Remember, it only takes twelve months to constitute a felony and, believe it or not, probated sentences don’t change a thing. She will still suffer, as do all felons, regardless of magnitude, sentence or degree of involvement, the lifetime stigma of a felony conviction.
Felony Consequences Are Forever
The collateral consequences of a felony conviction are forever, and most Americans, unless they have a dog in the fight, aren’t aware of that fact. And speaking of “dogs,” what about Mike Vick? He is a felon. How many of you thought that he deserved a “second chance?” Seems most of you did, and every pundit from the most liberal on MSNBC to Sean Hannity on Fox thought so too. Try to get them to speak out for the non-celebrity though. Good luck with that.
There are many thousands of people who fit the first-time offender description. How about Martha Stewart? She too is a convicted Federal felon, although I doubt that the collateral consequences will be as rough on her as on the people who don’t happen to have a mega-merchandising company to get them through the hard times. First-time, nonviolent offenders who are no more threat to society than you, yes you, have been suffering for years. Yet nothing is being done to relieve their suffering, and many, because they saw no alternative, are now repeat offenders, and that is a shame.
This is a group of people who have made mistakes, admitted them, and only want a chance to get their lives back. Many of their offenses were 10, 15, 25 or more years ago. They have re-established themselves in their communities, raised families, and achieved higher education. They are your friends, neighbors, Sunday-school teachers, and still they are made to continue the life sentence of a felony conviction. All of these people could be saved from further undeserved punishment so easily that it probably should be a crime that we have not already done so.
If jobs are the answer, what can be done, in addition to the previously mentioned programs, to unbend the system? Since the “system” is a function of government, and government is “We The People,” why don’t “We The People” enact laws that will allow those that are found to be worthy of a second chance the opportunity of getting one?
Here’s an idea. What if a law was passed that would allow first-time, nonviolent offenders a means of clearing their record? People with clean records don’t have a problem finding employment do they? Many states have a means for an ex-offender to apply for expunction of their records, in certain cases. There is nothing of the sort available for Federal offenses.
Under current law, a Federal felony is forever. A Presidential Pardon will not clear the ex-offenders record. There’s a potential new law that would be a simple, cost-effective solution to the problem. In fact the law would cost little to nothing to implement, and has the potential of tremendous savings to the taxpayer. If people are working and staying out of prison, the prison overcrowding and recidivism problems are reduced, the expense of building new facilities will be reduced and on and on. There is little if any downside.
A Solution That Would Work: The Second Chance Act
OK, are we agreed that this solution has possibilities? How then do we get the ball rolling? It’s easy. How is that, you say? Because it has already been done. That’s right, the legislation is already available. What? You say you never heard of it? I am not surprised. This most human and humane legislation has a very interesting history, and the current version is called H.R.1529, the “Second Chance for Ex-Offenders Act of 2009.”
Following is a brief synopsis of what this legislation offers:
* * * * * * * *
On March 6, 2009 Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) introduced HR 1529, the Second Chance for Ex-Offenders Act of 2009, legislation that would permit expungement of records of certain nonviolent criminal offenses. A person would be eligible to apply for expungement only if they fulfill requirements detailed in the legislation, including:
• Never being convicted of a violent offense (including an offense under state law that would be a violent offense if it were federal);
• Never being convicted of a nonviolent offense other than the one for which expungement is sought;
• Fulfilling all requirements of the sentence, including completion of any term of imprisonment or period of probation, meeting all conditions of a supervised release, and paying all fines;
• Remaining free from dependency on or abuse of alcohol or a controlled substance a minimum of one year;
• Obtaining a high school diploma or completion of a high school equivalency program;
• Completing at least one year of community service.
Records Expunged or Sealed: Upon order of expungement, all official law enforcement and court records, including all references to such person’s arrest for the offense, the institution of criminal proceedings against him, and the results thereof, except publicly available court opinions or briefs on appeal, shall be expunged (in the case of non-tangible records) or gathered together and sealed (in the case of tangible records).
Record of Disposition to Be Retained: A nonpublic record of a disposition or conviction that is the subject of an expungement order shall be retained only by the Department of Justice solely for the purpose of use by the courts in any subsequent adjudication.
Reversal of Expunged Records: Directly quoting, “The records expunged under this subchapter shall be restored by operation of law as public records and may be used in all court proceedings if the individual whose conviction was expunged is subsequently convicted of any Federal or State offense.”
* * * * * * *
That is the short version, and the key concept in the entire bill is that the bill does not grant expungement; it only gives the ex-offender the opportunity to make application for expungement. This reality negates the arguments of all who oppose this legislation. The applicant must appear before the original sentencing court where his/her application will be considered. A fail safe mechanism is also built in. Should a person be so stupid as to re-offend, all bets are off and their record is unsealed. I urge you to read the entire text of this legislation. You may go to the Library of Congress website/Thomas to read the current version as well as all previous versions. You may also see each version’s co-sponsors. Please look them up. Then ask yourself and them, “Why are you not supporting this legislation?”
Congress Failing the People
In the year 2000, on October 10, near the end of the legislative session, Charles Rangel introduced to the 106th Congress a bill, H.R.5433 the “Second Chance for Ex-Offenders Act of 2000.” At this first introduction, the bill had no co-sponsors, was assigned to the Subcommittee on Crime and died there. On Feb 14, 2001 Congressman Rangel reintroduced the bill to the 107th Congress as H.R.696 the “Second Chance for Ex-Offenders Act of 2001,” with twelve co-sponsors. The bill died in subcommittee. March 3, 2003 he reintroduced it to the 108th Congress as H.R.1434 the “Second Chance for Ex-Offenders Act of 2003,” with thirty three cosponsors. The bill died in subcommittee, but progress was being made as the subcommittee got a new name. It is now the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security.
On February 8, 2005 Old Charlie is nothing if not persistent, and he once again introduced the bill to the 109th Congress as H.R.662 the “Second Chance for Ex-Offenders Act of 2005,” with twenty seven co-sponsors, and the result, yep, died in subcommittee. Are you seeing a trend here? Never-say-die Charlie on January 22, 2007 introduced the legislation again to the 110th Congress as H.R. 623 the “Second Chance for Ex-Offenders Act of 2007,” with seventeen co-sponsors. Support seems to be fading and the result is the same. Dead in subcommittee. That brings us to the current 111th Congress, and true to form on March 16, 2009, the legislation is introduced once again as H.R.1529 the “Second Chance for Ex-Offenders Act of 2009.”
As of this writing there are no co-sponsors, and there have been no efforts by Rep. Rangel that can be found to solicit support. No one is willing to tell supporters why he has apparently abandoned support of this legislation. Could it be that the opposing lobbyists have made headway?
Supporters of the legislation have written countless letters, sent faxes, e-mail, made phone calls to Congressman Rangel, and to all of the members of the full Judiciary Committee, chaired by Congressman John Conyers, and to every member of the Judiciary Subcommittee chaired by Congressman Bobby Scott, seeking information and asking that the bill be moved forward. There has been virtually no response other than the “canned non-response” response that is the norm when contacting anyone in Congress. One supporter has made three trips to Congressman Rangel’s Office seeking information, and was stonewalled each time. The most frustrating thing about attempting to contact members of Congress is that many will not accept contact from outside their own district. They make laws that impact all of us, but really don’t want to talk to any of us.
How You Can Help
Why is the system failing. Simple. There are opponents to the demise of recidivism, the lobbyists for the businesses and organizations that feed on incarceration. So what can you do about this situation. Add your voice. Join our support group.
Supporters also have three petition sites Criminal Justice.Change.Org, Petition2Congress, and Care2Petition Site, that have, at last count, more than 1700 signatures that have generated more than 3000 letters of support to members of Congress and the President. So far, we have been ignored.
So, where are we? What about this legislation that has so much potential for good? It is about to meet the same fate as all of its predecessors. It is about to die in committee and that is a travesty.
It seems to me that we have one group of leaders who stand up, look us in the eye, and say “I’m tough on crime; we can’t support anything like this” and do nothing to relieve the long-suffering ex-offenders and taxpayers. On the other hand we have others who introduce legislation and then allow it to die, conduct hearing after hearing from which nothing of value issues, call for study after study when previous studies such as “Smart on Crime: Recommendations for the Next Administration and Congress” by the 2009 Criminal Justice Coalition, are ignored. Witness the call for a “Blue Ribbon Study Panel” by Senator Jim Webb. I support Sen. Webb’s initiative but his bill only establishes a commission to “study” the problems for eighteen months. How much longer then until any meaningful legislation is enacted? Relief is needed and available now if congressmen will act. While they all claim to have our interest at heart, I submit that their main concern is getting re-elected and retaining their power. Listen closely as all of them say, “Just send me back one more time, and surely we will get it done “next time.” Is H.R 1529 an example of “Next Time?” Eight years, six versions, no relief? People can’t get jobs, and are tired of waiting for “Next Time.”
I have to ask, when is it going to be “This Time?”
The author of this commentary, Thomas Kinney, is a 65-year-old retired telecommunications engineer living in Albany, GA. Mr. Kinney practices what he preaches, having written letters to every member of the House Judiciary Committee, as well as every member of the Subcommittee charged with H.R.1529. As a concerned citizen, he has immersed himself in the intricacies of the Federal legislative process and judicial system, and has clearly become “fit to be tied” by the failures of these systems. His mission is to bring people from all across the spectrum of our society together, and get them to understand just what the Slammer article, “It’s the Jobs, Stupid” really brings to light: ex-offenders must be able to get a job, or the recidivism revolving door will never stop turning. More and more prisons will have to be built, overcrowding will get worse, and judges will continually be forced to order the untimely release of more undeserving inmates. Kudos to Thomas Kinney for his efforts. – ED.