Thursday, July 3, 2014

Land of the Free

By Hope DeLap

Independence Day is the celebration of the birth of a nation liberated from the oppressive rule of Britain, free of the shackles of its past and empowered to thrive moving forward. But are we still this nation? Can we truly celebrate freedom when our justice system has never been so unjust?
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It is hard to celebrate America’s liberty knowing how truly un-free so many Americans are. A recent study showed that 65 million Americans have a criminal record. If you don’t have a calculator handy, 65 million is equivalent to one in four adults in the United States. Furthermore, another study found that about one third of adults in America have been arrested for adult or juvenile offenses, not including minor traffic offenses. Despite so many Americans having previous convictions on their record, a criminal history is seen as extremely problematic, not as normal. There is a severe social stigma attached to a condition 65 million adults share. Additionally, the past can never be left behind. These people are not free to move forward with their lives. Background checks and collateral consequences become the new chains that constrain their liberty.

The collateral consequences of conviction prevent so many people from moving on and creating new lives for themselves. These collateral consequences include additional civil and state penalties which continue to punish people long after they have paid their debt to society. JPI reports in Billion Dollar Divide that in 2010, 451,471 people in Virginia alone were disenfranchised. These penalties, mandated by statute, extend beyond voting rights and affect all areas of individuals’ lives:
  • Employment and business licensing
  • Housing
  • Education
  • Public benefits (unemployment insurance, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families)
  • Credits and loans
  • Immigration status
  • Parental rights
  • Interstate travel

These Americans receive a life sentence; day in and day out they must contend with collateral consequences that restrict their movements, activities and opportunities. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers recently released a report entitled Collateral Damage: America’s Failure to Restore Rights and Status After Arrest or Conviction which states that “collateral consequences can be a criminal defendant’s most serious punishment, permanently relegating a person to second-class status.”

What we need is the ability to forgive and forget. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” All around us are people who have made a mistake, in some cases a serious mistake or multiple ones, but they have done their time and have come out hoping to begin anew. Nevertheless, our society will not let them leave the past in the past. The NACDL declares, “It is time to celebrate the magnificent human potential for growth and redemption. It is time to move from the era of collateral consequences to the era of restoration of rights and status.”

We cannot truthfully call our nation the land of the free until we reduce the collateral consequences connected to criminal convictions and liberate millions of people from this devastating condition.

Hope DeLap is a JPI intern. She is a rising senior studying criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine.

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