Open Letter to President Barack Obama
There are roughly 20 million people living within the United States who cannot be considered citizens. Due to their own actions, they suffer the stigma of public outcasts and are often subjected to ridicule, defamation and discrimination. They are felons and I am one of them. I am writing you today not for the individual benefit of my own endeavors, but to shine the light on the machine-like efficiency our legal system has in the churning out of more and more "hardened criminals."
Over the past 30 years our country has experienced an explosion in the prison populations and privatization of facilities housing offenders. We have allowed a system to propagate our culture through initiatives like mandatory minimums, the three-strike rule and an equally surprising increase in new laws for lesser offenses. Let me be clear, I do not suggest we weaken our stance on how tough we should be on crime. I committed an offence and paid the price for my lack of wisdom as seen fit by a court of law. What I am suggesting is that we reconsider the social and cultural impacts of our current legal system on the future of our citizens.
Our jails have become mandatory government housing for people who suffer from substance abuse, addiction, mental illness and intellectual disorders. We house those with mental disabilities in the same cells with those coming down from serious drug withdrawals. We expect society to know the difference between a violent crime and a white collar crime, when both must check the dreaded application box concerning their criminal history. We impoverish a large population of minorities through a system that places so many demands upon them, that they are unable to breathe the fresh air of American freedom ever again having committed even the most innocuous of crimes.
You know all of this. You have done significantly more in recent years than I, or many of my fellow felons, could have expected by attacking the foolishness of mandatory minimums. You have released many drug related criminals back into society in the hopes that they embrace their second chances. For this Sir, I am grateful, but it simply isn't enough. While I would like to spout personal rhetoric of how my situation could be improved, it is far more advantageous to my peers to speak of how we as a society could improve the standards by which we create our own criminals. I speak to prevention and correction through three simple points.
First, our correctional facilities have failed. They were originally intended for correcting the behavior of those who choose to ignore public policy, but now focus on severe financial punishment. Our system does not adequately offer any real form of correction to the offender's lifestyle so that they will choose to make better decisions in the future as contributing members of our society. While there are some educational related programs available to prisoners, they are not enough. We already know that those with inadequate psychological help, lower education and fewer financial resources will be more likely to re-offend in their lifetimes.
While I am completely unqualified to speak to education and finance, I can offer a simple solution for psychology. There is a program being offered in Chicago called Becoming A Man through the Youth Guidance offices that you have visited before. This program explores the feasibility of whether or not Cognitive Behavioral Therapy could prevent crime, or reduce the amount of criminal intent in at-risk youth. I ask that you mention this program more and lean into supporting its national outreach so that more and more at-risk youth turn away from the path of crime.
Second, should felons not receive equal representation? Our countrymen live their lives under the auspices that at any moment they may voice their concerns to their representatives and express their beliefs through a democracy that counts their individual votes. I understand that the exploitation of our legal system for personal gain, no matter the form, should hold punishment, but I will not accept that the voice of those being punished should be squashed beneath their shame. Can we all agree that a person without a voice is doomed to the confines of rejection and will never again feel the pride in being an American? I ask that you pursue the simplification of the laws governing felon disenfranchisement, not only in the base right of voting, but also reviewing those laws that restrict the ability of felons to register to vote once their right is restored.
Finally, Sir I beg for mercy upon the millions of felons who seek to live normal lives. I am not naive. I fully understand that there are people who exist just to watch the world burn and they need to be dealt with in an appropriate manner. However, there are many felons who, having lived out the duration of their sentences, are not able to move past their convictions due to the weight of the public stigma upon their ability to find work, secure housing, or live in a welcoming social circle. Can we revisit the duration of felony convictions and reconsider the handing out of pardons from both the Executive branch and the many Governorships of our great nation? It should be hard to receive a pardon, but not so hard that it is financially detrimental for any one person to attempt the effort.
In order to survive as a felon we are often forced to undertake careers that leave little room for extra resources in time or money to pursue a pardon. This forces many who meet the legal requirements to receive a pardon incapable to even attempt the task. I ask that you form a Senate committee that reviews the pardon processes of our country and seeks to find a more uniform and cost effective pathway for those doing everything within their power to regain the legal standing of U.S. Citizen and the accompanying self-respect.
The fact is more can be done to serve a large portion of our country than is currently being pursued. I ask that you continue to pursue these paths mentioned and more to improve the lives of those who have committed crimes. We all need second chances, we all need mercy, we all need strong leadership. Let us judge the evolution of our society by the help we offer to those who have fallen, no matter how low.
Thank you for your time Mr. President.
Mr. James Wieland