Justice

How Being Convicted of a Non-Violent Crime Ruins Your Life

For decades, politicians won elections campaigning as "tough on crime" or "tough on drugs" candidates. These political slogans have appealed to voters across party lines because people naturally fear crime.

This has led, however, to a rampant dehumanizing of felons where states prioritize punishment instead of rehabilitation programs for felons following prison time. According to the Bureau of Justice, over 75% of those who are released from prison are arrested again within five years. While some would argue that this is the result of a continuing a pattern of bad behavior and bad character, others think that our policies limit the potential for rehabilitation. 

A conversation with Daryl, a convicted felon

Recently, I sat down with a man named Daryl to discuss his experience as a convicted felon in the criminal justice system. Daryl, energetic and friendly, grew up in Los Angeles. He made mistakes as a young adult and was convicted of a "third strike" in 1997. Three-strikes laws dramatically increase prison sentences of convicted felons who previously have been convicted of two or more serious felonies. In Daryl's case, his third strike was possession of a five-dollar chunk of crack cocaine in rock form. That got him 16 years-to-life in prison.

“I assumed I would be in there for life,” Daryl told me, “I know that when one has a prison sentence to life, that just means that they will get a chance at the minimum to go in front of [people on a parole board] who do not want you to get out to tell you they don’t want you to get out.”

Life in Prison

In prison, he said, “all humanity is stripped from you, they punish you for not functioning on a human scale in an inhumane environment.”  He described never feeling safe and that most inmates saw it as an opportunity to become a better criminal. He also knew that most had no hope to get out, which gave them a fatalistic view of life.

Daryl, though, strove to improve himself as best he could. He earned a degree from a bible college and kept busy doing as much work as he could. To his surprise, he was released after serving a 16-year sentence. His savior was Proposition 36, a California referendum that reformed the three-strikes law by mandating that felons convicted of non-violent drug possession receive a probationary sentence instead of prison time.

The difficulty of life after prison

When he was first released, Daryl owned only a few items: shoes, socks, a shirt, and a pair of shorts. He did not have government-issued identification, nor did he have the documentation to obtain one.

When a stranger let him use a cell phone, he had no idea how to operate it:

"Before I went to prison, a cell phone was the size of my shoe and did not have a screen.”  

He had also lost contact with family and friends while in prison and did not know how to reach them. As is typical when someone is released from prison, Daryl lived on the street or found temporary lodging with new contacts. 

Because of his felony, he was not able to apply for any public assistance or public housing, adding a layer of difficulty to securing a place to live. 

Getting a job was also difficult. When he would apply for work, he had to do so without a home address or identification. He also had difficulty maintaining proper hygiene while living on the streets, which made job interviews challenging. Of course, on every application, there was no way to avoid checking the box indicating he had committed a felony.

He also knew that when felons are hired, “being better was expected of you, you can’t be expected to do the norm.” He knew if he did not display the highest effort, he would be considered another felon that could not be trusted in the workplace.

Solutions

Daryl displays a lot of motivation and an inspiring desire to do better for himself. He has since reconnected with family and lives with his mother. He also has worked with Chrysalis, a non-profit in Los Angeles that specializes in helping the homeless find jobs, to obtain employment and is active with his church.

However, one cannot help but look at the “war on crime” and the “war on drugs” and notice a system that makes it nearly impossible for a felon not to return to a life of crime. 

What could be done instead?

  • Rehabilitation: Prisons are inhumane environments that offer few opportunities for employment afterwards. This sets up people for failure. Of course, there will always be those who simply desire to become “better criminals” in prison, but there are also many who wish to make honest change if given the chance to do so. Far too many are not being given that opportunity.  
  • Housing: Let's look at California, where Daryl lives. According to the Californians for Safety and Justice, it costs on average $62,396 per year to incarcerate someone in California. Meanwhile, Section 8 public housing assistance provides recipients with 30% of rent costs, at a maximum of $2,200 a month. This costs the government a maximum of $26,400 a year. But it's almost impossible for people with felonies to be allowed into Section 8 housing. We need to be honest and acknowledge that if someone is released from prison with a felony, it's cheaper in the long run to let them use Section 8 housing rather than allow them to be homeless and therefore more likely to commit a crime that puts them back into expensive incarceration. 
  • Drug policy: It is time to take an honest look at drug policy and the War on Drugs and ask if this has been working. According to the US Department of Justice, 16% of those in state prisons and 51% of those in federal prison were incarcerated due to drug charges. Far too many people are being put in prison for what needs to be seen as a health, rather than criminal, issue. Portugal has a policy of decrimalization and has the lowest drug use in the EU. It has saved a significant amount of money by no longer using court time and police efforts to prosecute drug crime. There is no way to look at the current drug war and say it has been working, and the notion of placing someone like Daryl in prison for 16 years over $5 worth of crack should cause any logical person to see a radical misalignment of priorities.  

A better system is possible.

Efforts in California like Proposition 36 (which ended the three-strikes policy) and Proposition 47 (which lowered six non-violent offenses from felony level to misdemeanor level) have been significant steps forward. No longer is "tough on crime" the only political answer, but unless we advocate for better solutions, we will remain stuck with a system that sets people up for failure, which costs us all dearly.

Vote for smarter crime policies next election. You can start by registering at OurTime.org