Past is Prologue?

Listening to talk radio today, host Warren Ballentine, made a statement that made me think, then shiver. In talking about the prison industrial complex  he mentioned that young people are allowed to drive at 16 but that they are unable to rent cars until they are 25. He cited a study done by automobile rental companies that the pre-frontal cortex (responsible for complex decision making, ability to delay gratification) is not fully mature until age 25. So in order to reduce the likelihood of damage to their fleets, most car rental companies err on the side of caution and don’t rent to those between 16 -25. Mr. Ballentine’s point was that car rental companies recognize that more mistakes are made by this group (as drivers), but that, as a society, we have decided that mistakes made at 17 or 21 should follow a person for the rest of their lives. The mistakes he was referencing in particular are non-violent felonies.

Convicted felons, in general, have a very tough time re-entering the workforce. There are certain career choices that will NEVER be open to them (lawyer, real estate agent, any position having fiduciary responsibility). This severely limits their income earning potential, and subsequently, their ability to adequately support themselves or their families. Of course this inability decreases the stability of communities that are disproportionately represented in the prison/parole system.  Which community is that? You get 1 guess.

As a mother of a teenaged boy I worry much more about him becoming involved with the legal system than drugs. We have gone over how to interact with the police should he have to (invoke his right to remain silent and then shut up. The end.). But let’s say he is convicted of having a bag of marijuana on his person (that he was *holding for a friend*) at 18. Does that conviction mean that he shouldn’t ever be able to pursue a career as a lawyer (his current aspiration)? Should checking that “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” box on a job application automatically rule him out of opportunities when he’s 30? The way the current criminal justice system works that conviction is a forever indictment of his character, potential and livelihood.

Should it be? For non-violent criminal offenders, should their records be stricken after a prescribed period – 2, 5, 10 years? How would this impact society? All I see is upside – the ability for people to support themselves, be productive members of society.

For the prison industrial complex there is incentive in maintain the incarceration status quo, and the post-jail system we have in place doesn’t discourage recidivism. Private companies that run jails need prisoners to be profitable so the trend over the past 20 years has been to increase ways become a criminal and, once identified as such, to maintain that status.

As a community I think that we should really give some serious attention and energy to how convicted felons are marginalized. Even if the kids of the CocoaMamas never set foot in jail, somebody else’s child needs us to advocate so that they can live productively after the fact.

One thought on “Past is Prologue?

  1. There is a new-ish book out by Michelle Alexander called “The New Jim Crow” that is all about how incarceration is just the new way to disenfranchise and oppress black people, especially black men. It’s the new form of total social control, because, as you rightly point out, the control does not end when the man walks outside of the prison doors, but continues for the rest of his life. It doesn’t only affect him, it affects his family, his children, his community. When one half of a community cannot get a job, cannot vote, cannot go to school, it is a recipe for implosion.

    The disenfranchisement actually encourages recidivism, encourages the revolving doors of the prison to continually turn. And in states like California, non-violent crimes can lead black men to spend their entire adult lives in jail due to the three strikes, meaning many more prisons need to be built to house people who are generally of no danger to anyone.

    Do people need to experience consequences when they offend against others? Sure. If someone steals my car, I’m not that sympathetic that I don’t want them to have some repercussion. But I’m also aware of the fact that people don’t steal cars for no reason; there is a reason that age is the most solid predictor for certain crimes, followed by socio-economic status. The issue isn’t one of values, although many people think so. Most folks who steal believe that stealing is wrong. The issue is the material situation in which they find themselves; the amount of inequality they perceive around them.

    The United States imprisons more people than any other country in the world and it also has more inequality than most other countries in the world. Those two facts are inextricably linked. Reduce the inequality, educate the children, and we can reduce the prison population. But we will NEVER do that – our country is committed to having black people on the bottom. It’s the only way we’ve ever known.


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