What is the greatest social equalizer? Is it our income, the level of education we have received, the economic assets we hold, or the spaces and opportunities we are able to access? I say it is our legal status. Whichever one you may believe is the greatest equalizer across race, gender, age, and ability—we can all agree income, education, assets, and access to resources for social mobility are vital for our economic security and prosperity. Our legal status obstructs our access to these equalizing tools. “Felons,” people who according to the U.S. criminal justice system have committed a criminal offense, are denied these equalizing opportunities with little hope to get on track. We need to reflect internally on our ethical mistrust of “felons” and enact policy that allows felons to function as productive members of our society.
As a Mexican immigrant, I know firsthand the limitations my family’s legal status has on our social mobility. As reported by a 2018 study done by the Institute of Labor Economics on Occupational Barriers and the Labor Market Penalty from Lack of Legal Status, undocumented immigrant workers experience a 12% loss in labor and capital. Similarly, a 2016 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Price We Pay: Economic Costs of Barriers to Employment for Former Prisoners and People Convicted of Felonies calculated that people with felony convictions experience a lower employment rate. A lower employment rate negatively impacts the U.S. labor market with an estimated 2014 loss of $78 billion in GDP.
During the first 2020 Presidential debate Donald Trump criticized Joe Biden for a 1993 senate speech on law enforcement, Biden warned of “predators on our streets who need to be cordoned off from the rest of society because the justice system does not know how to rehabilitate them.” Trump implied that by his releasing of felons from jail, Trump is therefore better for the African American community than Biden. However, a glaring chasm Trump and Biden miss is that cordoning felons in jail or releasing felons from jail does not change the lifetime sentence to poverty their legal status as felons causes.
Today the label of Felon is the greatest barriers to social mobility for people of color, especially Black men. Often, the well-intentioned logic behind barring certain people, deplorables: socially expendable criminal offenders— from continued access to public welfare services and opportunities like voting, 4-year college education and government benefits— is the belief that they are undeserving. As a society we have decided there are some crimes not worthy of reconciliation. People with a felony record, no matter how much time they serve, money they spend and atonements they make, are unforgivable. What is fundamentally wrong with this assertion is that our criminal justice system is alarmingly flawed. Our society has mixed standards— we use biased lenses when judging people guilty of a crime. The recent scandal with white celebrities bribing admissions boards is another stark reminder of the racist discrepancies embedded in our justice system. As a white woman, Felicity Huffman was sentenced to just 14 days in jail for a crime some Black moms are sentenced to 5 years in prison.
According to a 2010 study by the Sentencing Project, about one-third of Black men have a felony conviction. Half of the people in federal prisons are serving time for drug offenses, the life-long felon status bars 6.1 million Americans from voting because of a felony conviction. The answer is not to even out the demographics of who we put in jail. Rather, we should stop imprisoning and revoking the rights of so many with just a label: felon.
The issue with the felon status is the social implications it has. It is legalized modern-day slavery that has no end date. Brother Ali sang it best, “We no longer need chains to be slaves.” Many California inmates are essentially used for free slave labor as firefighters with an income of less than $5 a day. Before September of this year, when inmates were released, they were suddenly ineligible for employment as firefighters. Felons are intentionally disenfranchised members of society. We are intentionally cornering felons to be forced into a cycle of crime and abuse as their only choice for livelihood.
By acknowledging the inherent racism in our criminal justice system, we will finally be able to reconcile the injustices enforced on those in our society who are exiled and considered deplorables, felons. What we need to start doing, according to the Sentencing Project, is eliminating mandatory minimum sentences. We need to divest from police being the go-to solution for problems that could be better resolved by community-based prevention methods. We need to remove barriers that make it difficult for individuals with criminal records to be functioning members of our society. Given these points and the pervasiveness of racism, no substantial change can be possible if we do not reflect internally about our societal moral qualms with the legal status of felon. When we learn to forgive ourselves for our mistakes and reconcile our errors— with slavery, Jim Crow laws and felon status— we will be a better society.