A Catch-22 for Ex-Offenders
As the Bush administration focuses attention on ex-offenders with its modest program to help them return to the community, an eye-opening new study shows that the effort will require a lot more than re-entry programs. Not only do all 50 states continue to punish and marginalize convicts after they leave jail, but most also have laws that punish millions of people for crimes for which they were never convicted.

     The new study, from the Legal Action Center, [see http://www.lac.org/] a criminal justice policy group, identifies laws in all 50 states that hamper former offenders' ability to re-enter society. These excessively punitive laws, which must be modified or repealed before ex-convicts have a real chance at jobs, homes and mainstream lives, bar them from scores of professions that require state licenses but are unrelated to their crimes.

     The study, which will soon be available on the Web, ranks the states based on the stringency of laws that bar former offenders from whole professions, or strip them of driver's licenses, parental rights and the right to vote. 

     Colorado, South Carolina, Georgia and Virginia are rated worst, which means that ex-offenders in those states have the least chance of becoming productive citizens. In some states, a person who commits a vehicle-related crime as a teenager can go to college and grow into adulthood, only to be barred from, say, the real estate business, which requires a state license.

     A similar brand of punishment is being used against people who have been arrested on suspicion of crimes for which they were never convicted. Thirty-seven states permit prospective employers and all state licensing agencies to ask about and weigh arrests that never led to conviction. In addition, employers in most states can simply fire anyone who is discovered to have a criminal record, regardless of the circumstance.

     Congress worsened matters during the 1990's with a series of new laws that use federal aid to punish former offenders and arrestees. One of the most damaging laws withholds highway funds from states that do not punish drug offenders by suspending their driver's licenses - whether or not the original offense had anything to do with a car.

     Many states were smart enough to opt out of this law. But 27 actually revoke or suspend driver's licenses of some or all drug offenders. Those who leave prison in desperate need of jobs cannot legally drive to work, to school or to drug treatment programs. In states where public transportation is nonexistent, ex-convicts have no choice but to risk returning to prison by driving illegally. 

     This country only harms itself when it traps ex-offenders at the margins of society and forces them back into prison.