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There are two sides to this question, and people tend to have strong feelings no matter which side they are on. I will present one side, which is my own opinion on the matter, along with the other side, so you will have both points of view.
The first issue to consider here is why we incarcerate people. We incarcerate them to remove them from society, to keep them committing further crimes, one form of deterrence. We incarcerate them as a warning to others to not commit, crimes, another form of deterrence. We incarcerate them as a form of societal revenge, although few people are willing to admit that. And finally, we incarcerate them to rehabilitate them, so that when they are released, they can be better members of society.
It is my opinion that no matter what reason it is that we incarcerate people, it makes no sense to not give them a second chance. Let's look at the reasons one by one.
If we incarcerate people to prevent them from committing further crimes, if that were truly the case, then we would never let anyone out ever again. But we do. Most criminal acts do not result in life sentences. So our criminal justice system is premised upon the notion that at some point deterrence is no longer needed. If that is the case, then ex-convicts should be able to fully participate in society.
The idea of incarceration as a deterrence to others committing crimes has been demonstrated to be largely meaningless. The most extreme example of this is the death penalty, which has absolutely no effect upon others committing or not committing death penalty crimes. And while the crime rate has gone down generally in the United States, during this lengthy period of high incarceration rates, there is no research that shows there to be any cause and effect. Correlation is not causation. So, if we are not deterring others from committing crimes, there seems to be no value in punishing ex-convicts forever after.
Incarceration as a form of societal revenge is hardly an argument for continuing revenge. If our system determines that we are going to exact five years of revenge, then surely there is no point to piling on a lifetime of retribution after someone has served his or her time. The law, essentially, says that revenge is finite, a certain number of years. It does not say one is meant to drag a ball and chain around forever.
And if we are sincere in our motive of rehabilitation, then surely the point should be to give an ex-convict a second chance. How else can this person demonstrate that he or she has been rehabilitated?
No matter how I look at this issue, when I think about all the reasons we tout for incarceration, it seems to me that ex-convicts have paid their debt to society and should be able to live their lives without this debt being a debt for life.
On the other hand, people will argue that once a person has committed a crime, the statistics show that he or she is more likely to commit another crime. And there are criminal acts that give one pause in terms of hiring. For example, let's look at a person who has committed a crime of financial dishonesty, embezzling, perhaps. A bank manager has a reasonable basis to not hire such a person. Another example is the criminal acts of the pedophile. It is difficult to blame a school district that does not want to hire someone convicted of these crimes. So, there can be legitimate basis for not wanting to give ex-convicts a second chance in some contexts.
We are presently going through a period in which we are re-examining all of our ideas about incarceration. We incarcerate at the highest rate in the world, and we continue to imprison people through our policies of making them report their criminal records to prospective employers and by in some states not allowing them to ever vote again. There is little to suggest that these ideas and policies have improved anything whatsoever in our society. And now, it is only because of the prohibitive cost of incarceration that officials are willing to look at these policies. If that is what it takes to reform this system, then perhaps convicts and ex-convicts can reap the benefit.
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