Rather than providing a seamless transition out of prison or jail, state and federal laws are making reentry exceedingly hard for former offenders, according to a recent report from the Legal Action Center (LAC) that ranks all 50 states from best to worst, post-release.
From prohibitions on public assistance, driving privileges and voting rights to workplace discrimination and bans on student aid, such laws "diminish public safety and undermine the nation's commitment to justice and fairness" for hundreds of thousands of people released annually from prisons and local jails, the report says.
"As a result of the explosive growth of legal roadblocks in the last three decades," the LAC reports, "successful reentry into society is much more difficult for people who have been arrested or convicted of crimes, many of whom are fully qualified to work and participate in society and can demonstrate they are rehabilitated."
For example, private employers in 45 states are allowed to fire or deny work, at will, to anyone with a criminal record. In most states (29), licensing agencies like nursing boards and state bar associations can deny licenses based on past convictions. And while all states can issue "certificates of rehabilitation" to former offenders—allowing them to apply for vocational licenses—only Arizona, California, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey and New York actually do.
Most states, in line with the 1996 federal welfare law, also make at least some drug offenders permanently ineligible for federally-funded food stamps and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) cash assistance.
"This is a lifetime ban," the LAC reports, "even if someone has completed his or her sentence, overcome an addiction, been employed but got laid off, or earned a certificate of rehabilitation."
The federal law allows states to eliminate the ban through legislation, but only 12 states have done so.
Another 27 states suspend or revoke drivers' licenses for some or all drug offenders, making it harder to get to work, school or addiction treatment. Thanks to the Higher Education Act of 1998—which states cannot alter—students convicted of drug-related offenses are banned from receiving grants, loans or work assistance until they, at least, complete substance-abuse treatment and pass two unannounced drug tests.
And all but two states—Maine and Vermont—place some restrictions on the right to vote for felony offenders, disenfranchising millions.
"A conviction should never bar access to a citizen's right to vote," the report says, "or to basic necessities such as food, clothing, housing, and education."
The LAC—in collaboration with criminal justice policymakers, victim advocates, housing officials and former offenders—also graded all 50 states based on the extent to which their laws create counterproductive barriers to reentry. The more barriers, the higher the score.
The states with the fewest obstacles to reentry include Maine, California, Hawaii, and New York, the latter receiving the lowest score. Many of the Old South states—Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina—rank among the worst for post-release prospects. But Colorado received the highest grade, making it the most difficult place for former offenders to re-enter society.
Source: "After Prison: Roadblocks to Reentry," Legal Action Center, www.lac.org/roadblocks.html
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