Never-Ending Sentence

When have felons finally paid their dues?

For Michele Convie, the two petty pot busts are ancient history. But today, some 20 years after being released from jail, she's still serving time.

Never mind that Convie is the poster child for successful rehab, with her Pima Community College sheepskin and her serious job directing a Tucson women and children's shelter. Like thousands of people exiting our nation's prisons, she's nonetheless gone through hell getting professional security clearances. And even today, she can't vote, serve on a jury or run for political office.

"All the bureaucratic stuff, it's so frustrating," she says. "And people who have just gotten out--who aren't as far away from prison as I am--often they just say, 'To hell with this.'"

In Arizona, ex-offenders with two felonies must petition to have their civil rights restored. That's just the beginning, however. They also face a slew of less conspicuous "collateral consequences," such as restrictions on professional licenses for everything from social work--as in Convie's case--to butchering meat. Likewise, they're often ineligible for educational scholarships and many types of public assistance.

But if you think this dilemma affects only former felons, think again. According to the Prisoner Reentry Institute at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, approximately 13 million American adults have been behind bars. And each year, another 650,000 of them, including 15,000 Arizonans, return to our communities. In turn, the opportunities they find here on the outside can determine whether they go straight--or go back to crime.

These so-called "hidden punishments" are a hot topic among legal thinkers. And among those banging the drum for change is Jack Chin, a UA law professor and co-director of the Law, Criminal Justice and Security Program. While plea bargains are the vernacular of modern courtrooms, collateral consequences "are not something you have to be advised of when you plead guilty," he says.

Nor is society prepared for the consequences, when so many ex-felons face such little hope. "While they're in prison, they're paying their debts to society," Chin says. "And part of that is they lose their rights as members of society. But if you say to a large group of people that this status is with them forever--that they're forever second-class citizens--I think it's got to be discouraging to those people."

As we send more people to jail, he says, the consequences only worsen. "It's one thing if you're talking about less than 1 percent of the population. You could say, 'Well, it might be unfair to them, but it's not a major social problem.' But you're talking about 6 or 7 percent of the population that has a felony conviction. In some communities, it's far more than that. And if they are to be productive members of society, they need access to jobs.

"They either work, or they don't," Chin says. "And if they don't work, there's a reasonably high probability that they're going to be committing crimes."

Still, recognizing the problem is only half the battle. Understanding its full scope is another. After countless research hours, Chin and several students found 150 restrictions on ex-cons within Arizona law, and more than 100 within the state's administrative code. Those strictures run the gamut, from voting and public-housing restrictions to child custody and the various employment prohibitions.

But state lawmakers and judges rarely seem to realize the breadth of these discriminatory policies. To Chin, it's part of a national myopia. "Before we can say the laws are good or bad or too few or just right, we have to know what they are. And nobody knows what they are." In response, the American Bar Association is urging states to scrutinize their laws for these hidden punishments. "Each state should be able to say, 'Here's what happens if you're convicted of a crime.'"

Congress has also taken note; its "Second Chance Act," now under consideration, would require states to comb their laws for collateral consequences. Even President Bush raised the issue in his 2004 State of the Union speech, with a call for $300 million to aid recently released prisoners.

Unfortunately, Arizona's lawmakers are less enthusiastic about reform. Many have forged political careers from "getting tough" on crime and appear reluctant to change course, even when the evidence proves them wrong-headed. At least that's what State Rep. Ted Downing discovered last year, when he introduced a felons' civil rights bill in the House Judiciary Committee.

After his measure sputtered out, the Tucson Democrat stripped it down to address only voting rights, and then reintroduced it. Today, the bill again languishes in the Judiciary Committee under Chairman Eddie Farnsworth, a Republican from Gilbert. Farnsworth didn't return two phone calls from the Tucson Weekly seeking comment.

Speaking to a felons' rights conference earlier this month, however, Downing called his measure crucial. He pointed out its particularly harsh effect on minorities, who are disproportionately represented in Arizona's prisons. "We estimate that 44,000 Latinos and about 19,000 African Americans are prevented from voting," he said, "even though they've done their time and paid their fines. That's an enormous number of people, and that's an injustice that has to be dealt with. And certainly, voting rights have been a traditional issue for those two communities."

But to folks like Michele Convie, it just comes down to fairness. "For years, I never tried to get a job where anyone would care that I'd been to prison," she says. "I never tried to do anything but wait tables and tend bar. I knew if I tried to do anything more than that, there would be questions about my background."

Since then, she says, attitudes towards ex-offenders have only hardened. "When I walked out of prison, it wasn't nearly as bad as it is for a woman who walks out now--the whole political climate in the United States has become so much more punitive. It's the belief that if you punish people enough, then they'll get the idea."

But wielding the stick--minus the carrot--is just a bad idea, she says. "The way the system is now, it's absolutely set up to make people fail."

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