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Another Voice: Legal shackles remain on convicts after incarceration

By Ronald Fraser

With each criminal conviction, New York State matter-of-factly tells the defendants how long they will spend behind bars. Hidden from view, in the “fine-print,” is a long list of additional penalties attached to these convictions.

Only upon leaving prison and while attempting to rebuild their lives, do offenders experience, first-hand, how these non-prison “collateral consequences” limit or deny their access to housing, employment and much more.

“The stigma of incarceration and disconnection from the workforce,” according to a Council of State Governments report, “are among the challenges people face when trying to find a job after release from prison or jail.”

Council researchers have prepared a list of 1,252 separate “collateral consequences” embedded in New York State statutes and regulations – waiting to snare persons convicted of a crime – including these examples.

Employment

“Deny/suspend/revoke milk dealer license.” A discretionary penalty with an indefinite duration for conviction of a felony.

“Ineligible for license as a junk dealer.” A mandatory penalty with an indefinite duration for conviction of crimes involving fraud, dishonesty, misrepresentation or money laundering.

“Deny hairdressing/cosmetology license.” A discretionary penalty with a conditional duration for conviction of child support offenses.

Other penalties

“Ineligible for tenancy in public housing authority project.” A discretionary penalty with an indefinite duration for conviction of a felony or misdemeanor.

“Restrict internet use.” A mandatory penalty with an indefinite duration for conviction of sex offenses.

“Ineligible for public assistance.” A mandatory penalty with a time-limited duration for conviction of crimes involving fraud, dishonesty, misrepresentation or money laundering.

Occupational licenses

Because “One out of five working Americans needs a license to work while one in three American adults has a criminal record,” the Institute for Justice has prepared, for state adoption, a model legislation titled, “Collateral Consequences in Occupational Licensing Act.” To date, at least 18 states – but not New York State – have reformed their occupational licensing laws to reduce entry barriers for those with a criminal record.

However, the Collateral Consequences Resource Center’s Restoration of Rights Project, an organization that tracks legal restrictions on people with a criminal record, reports that in New York State:

  • Employment denial must be based on a direct relationship and unreasonable risk to property or safety; and,
  • By executive order, public employers may not inquire into an applicant’s prior convictions until an initial hiring decision is made.

Legal barriers that make life after prison difficult, if not impossible, set people with a criminal record up for failure – and a trip back to prison.

Ex-offenders are responsible for making the lifestyle changes needed to successfully re-enter society. New York State legislators also have a responsibility to give wrongdoers the opportunity to make these changes and to become productive, law-abiding citizens.

Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization.

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