By Dre’Kevius Huff, Savannah Law School
Third place winner of the first annual law student writing competition.
Fitting into society is hard. Overcoming negative social labels to fit in is even harder. With a criminal record, the chance of reintegrating into society and transcending the social stigma of a criminal record is infinitesimally small. Because of safeguards such as background checks to weed out the ne’er-do-wells that would mar the attractive veneer of a safe community or workplace, criminal records prevent an individual from getting a job, finding adequate housing, and reintegrating back into mainstream society. Societal labels dehumanize these individuals, and instead of seeing them as people, we see them as scourges of the community, and all but reject them. Where does this leave a person when society has given them the proverbial cold shoulder and left them to fend for themselves without any tangible resources or skills? In most cases, this leads to an individual falling back into their old patterns before they were arrested, which results in them going back to the same environment that lead to their arrest in the first place. So they get arrested again, waste more of their lives in prison, only to be released and repeat the same cycle as before, which helps to explain the embarrassingly high recidivism rate in this country. While not all criminal records, such as rape or murder, should go unreported to the public, most nonviolent misdemeanors and smaller drug charges should go unreported to the public. This helps an ex-criminal reintegrate because 1) they can reenter society without having to bear the oppressive weight of a negative social label and 2) they can now have access to resources such as housing and can apply for jobs without being instantly rejected because of a criminal past. But there are also resources that can be provided in prison that can help facilitate a less tumultuous reentry back into the real world, such as educational and vocational training. By removing these smaller offenses and providing tools to succeed, ex-criminals can reintegrate into society and not have to live with the daunting shadow of their record looming over them.
Although we live in a society where every individual can achieve the “American Dream” by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, this dream is only feasible if someone is on the straight and narrow. A single mistake that results in a criminal record can lead to a lifetime of discrimination (not everyone can be Martin Luther King and go to prison and get out and still achieve greatness). An all too common instance of criminal records wasting lives is that of young adults who get into legal trouble and, without an education or any practical skills, have no way to make a living once they are released back into society with a criminal record. A criminal record all but assures that an individual will be discriminated against, no matter what type of offense is on record. As soon as a potential employer or a landlord sees that an applicant has a record, this knowledge, whether intentional or not, will result in a negative bias against the applicant. In many instances, such as a drug possession, the offenses on record are ones that would have no effect on the applicant’s ability to work, but, with his reputation blighted by his criminal past, the applicant remains both unemployed and derelict. Being both without a job and a home, an individual has nowhere to turn but back to the life of crime that led to their incarceration in the first place. This cautionary tale exemplifies the main problem with releasing criminal records to the public; once one is affixed with the label “criminal”, achieving the American Dream becomes a herculean task.
As it stands, most prisons offer very few, if any, resources that would to help an inmate once they are released from prison; they just waste their days going through the same monotonous routine. I opine that having resources available for inmates will better help them acclimate to the outside world once they are released. These resources can come in the form of helping inmates get their GEDs and vocational training that will help them find employment once released. If inmates have at least a basic education and some kind of specialized job training, they become much more attractive to potential employers and can have an active role and contribute to their society in a positive way. With nonviolent misdemeanors and drug charges not being reported to employers and landlords, former inmates would likely have a much higher success rate at finding both employment and housing. In the long run, this would also lessen the need for those with criminal records to rely on public services like food stamps or welfare because they will be gainfully employed and selfsufficient.
While the ideas in this essay are intended to explain why criminal records should not be reported to the public, there are hurdles that would have to be jumped for these ideas to become reality. While having a record exposed to the public can damage someone’s reputation and lead to public ridicule and condemnation, some would argue that this is an aspect of punishment that a criminal should bear. This can potentially have a deterrent effect on possible offenders which could possibly prevent people from committing an offense in the first place. Additionally, funding educational and vocational programs for prisoners would be a costly endeavor. It would not be unfair to say that many hardworking taxpayers would not be too happy having their hard-earned being spent of criminals. This approach would require patience before there could be tangible results. There would have to be time for inmates to go through these programs in prison and exist in the outside world before the effects of these programs are evident. However, in today’s world of 140 character tweets and advanced technology, we are used to instant gratification; we want to see results now. The only realistic solution to these problems is to simply ask for patience; patience to allow these ideas to work and the understanding that people can change if given the opportunity to turn their lives around after a less than ideal start.
While reporting criminal records to the public is done with the best of intentions, the effects of this are harmful to everyone. Most people view those with a criminal record as a threat to their health or safety, when this is not always the case. Small mistakes that result in criminal records could
have catastrophic effects on someone’s future livelihood; they can be prevented from getting jobs, homes, and must also deal with being shunned by society because of a (potentially) innocuous criminal record. The main fear is that not reporting criminal records could result in dangerous criminals moving into safe neighborhoods and consequently bringing crime into a previously safe community. However, as stated before, only nonviolent misdemeanors and smaller drug charges would go unreported to the public. This would assuage most of the concern that would come along with not knowing the criminal record of someone who has been incarcerated—ignorance truly being bliss. The benefit that society receives by having record of these smaller offenses is outweighed by the wildly disproportionate cost that is paid by those who have to try to fit back into a society designed to discriminate against them for simply seeking a second chance. By removing these smaller offenses, people are afforded a better life than being forced to scrape by with minimum wage jobs while still living with relatives, never being able to feel experience independence or selffulfillment. Even the most vibrant individuals can become disillusioned after wasting their life’s potential because of a criminal record. This makes our society more accepting of each other and helps prevent us from making snap judgements about people who we know nothing of besides a criminal record with no context. By not reporting nonviolent misdemeanors and smaller drug charges to the public and providing inmates with educational and vocational programs, reintegration into society becomes realistic and people are allowed to move on with their lives instead of falling into the vicious cycle of relapse into crime and recidivism.