“At least 65 million people in the United States, or more than one in four adults, have a criminal record, which can mean anything from an arrest to a prison sentence,” the New York Times editorial In Search of Second Chances opines. “This can trigger severe penalties that continue long after punishment is complete, according to a new report by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Many of these penalties, known as collateral consequences, are mandatory, and are imposed regardless of the seriousness of the offense or the person’s individual circumstances . . .
Laws can restrict or ban voting, access to public housing, gun possession and professional and business licensing. They can affect a person’s immigration status, parental rights, credit rating, ability to get a job, and eligibility for benefits. In all, more than 45,000 laws and rules serve to exclude vast numbers of people from fully participating in American life.
Did you catch that? Gun possession! And no, they didn’t walk it back by asserting that violent offenders should be denied their gun rights in the interests of public safety.
The report makes several recommendations, including the repeal of most mandatory post-conviction penalties, except for those specifically needed to protect public safety. Where the penalties are not mandatory, they should be imposed only if the facts of a case warrant it. The report also recommends that the process for restoring a person’s rights and status be simple, clear and accessible.
No doubt the Times will make that point – should gun rights advocates’ argument that felons’ gun rights should be restored find fertile ground. Still, could this be the one gun-related issue upon which the left and right agree?
Conservatives and liberals alike agree that it is unfair to continue to punish people who have already served their time. In his 2004 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush said, “America is the land of second chance, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.”
The point is not to excuse or forget the crime; in the Internet era that wouldn’t be possible anyway. Rather, it is to recognize that in America’s vast criminal justice system, where 14 million people are arrested a year and 2.2 million are put behind bars (virtually all of whom will one day be released), second chances are imperative. It is in no one’s interest to keep a large segment of the population on the margins of society.
In my dreams.