Inmates re-entering society should not face lifetime barriers to work
When we talk about criminal-justice reform, we should look at the collateral consequences that stand in the way of re-entry after prison, write guest columnists Dan Satterberg and Brady Walkinshaw.
Special to The Times
MORE than 7,000 people will finish their prison sentences and return to the community this year in Washington state. On the day of their release, each inmate is highly motivated never to return to prison, but more than half will be arrested within their first year back in the community. Why?
One reason is the hidden barriers that limit successful re-entry into our society. Former inmates don’t have access to many educational and job opportunities and are prohibited from applying for professional licenses that could lead to stable incomes.
Most of us are familiar with the direct consequences of committing a crime — jail or prison time, fines, community service, probation and treatment, but it’s the lesser-known indirect consequences that play a large part in why former inmates return to prison. These are known as “collateral consequences” because they have been imposed, not by judges or the criminal law, but by legislative bodies as additional hidden punishments.
While the terms of the sentence are measured in months or years, collateral consequences can last a lifetime. Is it fair to impose lifetime disabilities long after the debt has been paid to society? We don’t think so.
Federal law prohibits some people with criminal records from obtaining student loans or living in public housing. State law denies people with felony convictions from working in more than 90 professions including barber, manicurist and commercial fishing. These added punishments often keep otherwise qualified people from successfully pursuing careers and staying out of prison.
Some collateral consequences make sense while others don’t have any rational reason behind them. Those that don’t make sense should be repealed and the barriers to licensed occupations removed.
That is why we support the idea of a Certificate for Restoration of Opportunity, called CROP for short. The certificate acts as a receipt that proves a person has fulfilled the conditions of a sentence or is in substantial compliance with paying off fines and fees. These people have done the time, are in good standing with the court, paid their debt to society and have no other law violations.
This reasonable reform to our judicial system would allow the applicant to be considered for educational, housing and job-training opportunities. It would open the door for those with a criminal record to re-enter the labor force and become a contributing member of society. And we believe it would lead to lower rates of reoffending.
Our proposal, which has been crafted with Columbia Legal Services and many other interested groups, has reasonable protections in place. Those convicted of sex crimes would not be eligible and the legislation does not restore gun rights. Other limitations are in place to protect vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and children. Nine other states have a similar program to restore opportunities that a felony conviction would otherwise bar.
The CROP is an open, transparent alternative to the sealing of court records. It becomes part of the criminal history kept by the Washington State Patrol, and would show up on a background check as proof that the sentence was served.
In a recent hearing in the state House Public Safety Committee, Seattle state Rep. Brady Walkinshaw’s bill, HB 1553, received support from the prosecutor’s association, sheriffs and police chiefs, as well as the business community. Remarkably, after extensive work on the legislation over the past year, no groups have expressed opposition to the legislation.
We believe this program would not only make our communities safer, but would also lower costs in the judicial system. When we talk about the need for criminal-justice reform, we should start by looking at the collateral consequences that stand in the way of successful re-entry after prison. The CROP bill in the Legislature, HB 1553, is the place to begin.
Dan Satterberg is King County Prosecuting Attorney. State Rep. Brady Walkinshaw, a Democrat, represents Seattle’s 43rd District.