Our nation has a penchant for creating unnecessary complexity and obstacles for its people in areas such as the tax, health insurance and student debt miasmas. The prison industry adds to this with what it euphemistically calls “collateral consequences.” In simple language, this means a series of state-based statutory punishments – rooted in the medieval English practice of “civil death” – that greet ex-felons who have served their time and paid their debt to society.
Our country’s overall policy is that once punished, ex-felons are released from prison to be free to re-integrate themselves into society as normal productive human-beings, yet we have a quagmire of unnecessary laws that prevent full rehabilitation. Many states prevent ex-felons from voting, and obstruct them when they try to obtain housing, enter college or get needed public benefits or employment. This simply does not make sense because such laws encourage recidivism, not rehabilitation. Some ex-felons then resort to unlawful means to feed, clothe and house themselves and their families.
If you’re into cognitive dissonance, you can visit the websites of two organizations dedicated to righting this wrong. They detail the myriad of state laws and how ex-felons find themselves in a labyrinth of bureaucracy or end up in jail again. (Visit the Vera Institute of Justice — http://www.vera.org/ — and the Sentencing Project — http://www.sentencingproject.org/ – for more information.)
Let’s consider an ex-felon who serves his/her sentence and wants to live a law-abiding life. Eleven states say they have no voting rights – permanent disenfranchisement. Other states have exceptions to the exceptions depending on the ex-felon’s status, parole, etc. Only Maine and Vermont have no restrictions for ex-felons and, in fact, in these two states ex-felons can vote via absentee ballot while in prison.
In the nineteen-seventies, three ex-felons in California sued to get back their right to vote. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a majority opinion by Chief Justice Rehnquist, rejected their argument that they are being denied equal protection of the lawsunder the U.S. Constitution (Richardson v. Ramirez 418 U.S. 24(1974)).
Moreover, under many state laws, landlords, community colleges and universities, student loan creditors and social welfare agencies can outright reject ex-felons.