Many people don’t think about the rights of convicted felons and which rights are taken from them because, as far as many are concerned, they deserve what they get.
But a fair number of these individuals will be released from prison and expected to reintegrate into society. Even after they have served their prison sentences and paid their debts to society, the deck seems stacked against them for making a fresh start. We need more programs, business owners and landlords willing to help those who have been released from prison to establish a productive life — and maintain it.
All felons are not the same, and not all felonies are the same.
Some crimes are punishable by life in prison, and they should be. Other crimes result in months or years of imprisonment with the expectation that person will return to “life on the outside” at some point. These are the men and women I want to bring attention to.
A convicted murder is a felon. Most of us do not know a murderer. But many of us do know a felon — someone who has made some poor choices and suffered the consequences. It could be someone convicted of three or more driving-while-intoxicated charges; a person convicted of possession of a drug such as methamphetamine, heroine, crack or cocaine; a convicted thief who stole something valued more than $500; or a number of other offenses. Have I described someone you know? Someone who needs not just a second chance to get back on their feet but the support to keep standing once they do?
According to an article written in 2018 by Melissa Li from the American Psychological Association, more than 600,000 individuals are released from prison annually, and 75% of them are arrested and reincarcerated within five years of release.
In the article, Li attributes minimal preparation and “inadequate assistance and resources” that make reentry into the outside world difficult. Basically, what many experts assert, is life for a felon is easier on the inside, than the outside. Why? Because they have a home, food, visitation rights, games and jobs behind bars.
Employment is one of the top challenges for felons. Anytime I’ve ever applied for a job, with the exception of a paper route when I was 11, I was asked if I’m a convicted felon followed by what crime I was convicted of. I am not a felon, but say I were. Even if I lied, that employer would run a background check and would know the truth pretty soon. Granted, dishonesty is not a great trait in an employee, so I suggest checking the box if it applies to you.
In the Northland, jobs available to felons are often low-paying and without great benefits, or a position where they are paid under the table, which is a separate legal issue. So at best, they are making enough to make ends meet but probably also deemed low-income. Former dealers at this stage often go back to dealing; better money.
This brings us to housing. If you are low-income earning, you may go to the local public housing authority. According to Lisa Ainsworth from Liberty Housing Authority, a felon convicted for distribution of a high-class drug or lifetime sex offense automatically has no shot of getting housing vouchers, according to federal law.
Other convictions generally require a three-year period between when the person is released from prison and is eligible to be on the waiting list for housing vouchers. Then, it goes based on priority, for example a single mom with no convictions is probably a higher priority than a person with even one nonviolent conviction. Furthermore, the voucher doesn’t give a guarantee. The ultimate decision falls on the landlord.
I have a friend, a felon, who looked for housing in the Northland and found none due to private landlord preferences. The only places available in the area are south of the river, mainly in areas described as a “bad part of town.”
Finally, some felons who are on parole don’t have the right to vote until they aren’t, taking away their voice in how they are treated. And as Li at the APA noted, only 25% are still free five years later.
I want to see more programs aimed at reentry and rehabilitation of felons in the Northland. Not all felons are bad or scary. Some just don’t have a way out and will continue to make poor decisions as long as resources aren’t available encouraging them to do better.