Making America the Land of Second Chances: Restoring Socioeconomic Rights for Ex-Offenders


Virtually every felony conviction carries with it a life sentence. Upon being released from prison, ex-offenders face a vast and increasingly unnavigable maze of mandatory exclusions from valuable social programs and employment opportunities. These twists and turns-exclusions, ranging from restrictions on the ability to get a driver’s license to a lifetime federal welfare eligibility ban -impede their hopes of success in the free world. Defenders of collateral sanctions justify most of them as preventive, as “exist[ing] in order to protect society from the ex-offender’s corrupting influence, and [as] prevent[ing] the commission of future offenses by ex-offenders.” However, in adopting this array of civil disabilities, federal, state, and municipal governments have endorsed a social policy that condemns ex-offenders to a diminished social and economic status. For many, it means a life of crime. Recently, the American Bar Association concluded that: The dramatic increase in the numbers of persons convicted and imprisoned means that this half-hidden network of legal barriers affects a growing proportion of the populace. More people convicted inevitably means more people who will ultimately be released from prison or supervision, and who must either successfully reenter society or be at risk of reoffending …. If promulgated and administered indiscriminately, a regime of collateral consequences may frustrate the chance of successful re-entry into the community, and thereby encourage recidivism. In this article, we argue that advocates must engage in a comprehensive litigation attack on reentry barriers to dismantle this crippling web of collateral sanctions and to restore the full citizenship of ex-offenders. We argue that in light of unfavorable federal law, litigation under state law theories provides the best hope for relief. While legal advocacy aimed at helping ex-offenders surmount existing barriers to housing, employment, and other basic necessities is an invaluable step, collateral sanctions will continue to have a devastating impact on individuals and their communities unless resources are directed at changing these policies. A state-specific litigation strategy, coordinated with legislative and public education efforts, achieves that goal either through outright victory in the courts or, even if unsuccessful, will exert pressure on the political process.

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