As a 17-year-old boy, Luther was charged with a non-violent felony. It was his first brush with the law, and he was advised that if he pled guilty to the charge he would serve just a few months in prison and be released in time to start college in the spring.
Not once was Luther told about the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction. Thinking himself fortunate to have avoided a lengthier sentence, he accepted the deal.
Almost twenty years later, Luther is all too familiar with the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction. These consequences have had a far more detrimental impact on his life than his actual criminal punishment.
Like many of the 1.6 million North Carolinians with criminal records, Luther remains isolated from a significant portion of the opportunities and resources essential to productive citizenship because of this criminal record.Many landlords refuse to rent to him. Most employers will not even interview him. And more than 900 state and federal laws deny him a wide range of privileges and rights based on his conviction.
In many circumstances, it is reasonable and appropriate for an employer, landlord, or government agency to consider an individual’s criminal record. Prior behavior may indicate an inability or unwillingness to responsibly enjoy a privilege, discharge the duties of a profession or job, or comply with certain rules and agreements.
But there is more to a person than his worst mistake. Accordingly, there needs to be an individualized assessment of each applicant—looking at what the person has done since his conviction and who he is today—in order to appropriately determine risk. Instead, employers, landlords, and state officials often see only a box on an application checked “yes” beneath the question “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” For many individuals with criminal convictions, the opportunity to build new lives and provide for their families ends right there.
“No matter how well an interview is going, when I tell them about my conviction the whole atmosphere changes,” Luther says. “I can almost feel this wall going up, like I’m still serving time.”
By burdening individuals with many far-reaching collateral consequences and offering them little assistance in starting new lives, our current reentry scheme sets up individuals for defeat.
Society demands individuals with criminal records not re-offend, but then deprives them of meaningful opportunities to provide for themselves. Rehabilitation and reintegration are our stated goals, but too often our laws and personal preferences force individuals with criminal records to the fringes of communities.
Community safety is, as it should be, the first priority, but we have created a peculiar circumstance of exclusion that often facilitates re-offending. We pay a hefty price for these contradictions: North Carolina’s 3-year recidivism rate is 40 percent, and taxpayers spend $1.2 billion a year on incarceration.
This is not the sort of problem that simply goes away without significant reforms. Today, there are approximately 38,000 individuals incarcerated in North Carolina’s 70 prisons. Sooner or later, 95 percent of these individuals will return to communities across North Carolina.
North Carolina’s leaders have begun to realize that a revolving-door criminal justice system is unfair, costly, and unsafe. In the last two years, both Democrat and Republican leaders have taken small but significant steps toward creating a reentry system that works for us all.
This year, the General Assembly passed a measured but historic law providing for expunctions of first-time nonviolent felonies after 15 years of good behavior. Similarly, the General Assembly recently established certificates of relief which mitigate some of the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction, as well as a network of local reentry councils to coordinate the delivery of reentry-related resources. For these efforts, leaders on both sides of the aisle should be applauded. But there is much room for continued improvement.
North Carolina needs a reentry system that meaningfully restores opportunities and resources to individuals based on individualized assessments of risk and need. Such a system better ensures safe communities and saves public dollars.
A truly reentry-oriented corrections system provides deserving individuals—like Luther, who is now eligible for both a certificate of relief and an expunction of his nonviolent felony—opportunities to move beyond the mistakes that have defined so much of their lives and more fully contribute to their families and communities.