The Rights We Lose
the loss of civil liberties and how to reinstate them
Any felony conviction, regardless of sentence, is for life. The title "felon" carries with it the legal, social and economic hardships of a brand; as if we all wear a scarlet letter “F” across our foreheads. Most of us will handle the ridicule and shame of our crime in time as we heal. It is difficult to give up the traditions surrounding the rights we lose as part of our criminal convictions, but this is part of the price we pay. Felons lose these rights on average:
- Right to vote, or hold public office
- Right to bear arms, or sell firearms
- Right to travel anywhere they want in the world
- Free to hold any type of employment
- Loss of certain licenses, or permits
- Loss of certain public social benefits, or aide programs
- Loss of some, or all parental rights
- Duty to serve on a jury
- Freedom of personal anonymity online or offline
Not all convictions are the same and the repercussions of your criminal conviction may be different than someone else's. Almost all of us will lose those top three rights: voting, bearing arms and traveling. Over time we may get some of them back, but it is an uphill battle.
Right to Vote, or Hold Public Office:
Felony disenfranchisement is an obstacle to participation in democratic life which is exacerbated by racial disparities in the criminal justice system, resulting in 1 of every 13 African Americans unable to vote. (Project, 2015) Losing the right to vote is losing the ability to be heard. Without a strong, united voice, we are unable to sway political and policy initiatives that could help our long term benefits. There have been numerous policy initiatives proposed to change laws on felon voting rights. Sometimes these initiatives are pushed through by congressmen or senators, but the majority are from citizen led groups. Organizations like The Sentencing Project and NACDL continue to force the issue of felon voting rights with elected officials.
We are a large segment of society that is cast aside due to the seriousness of our crimes. Society cannot expect our population to grow and be reputable citizens if we are given a life sentence as social outcasts. We need supporters who are willing to take the risk of helping in a public manner. Any public official who wishes to have a stronger foothold in their constituency should help felons, if for nothing else, the large number of voters they would win. There are some states that will allow voting after a felony conviction, but until all states allow follow suit, we need to continue to force the issue.
Right to Bear Arms, or Sell Firearms:
The federal Gun Control Act of 1968 is the legislation that made it illegal for us (among other groups of excluded persons) to purchase or own a firearm. This was in reaction to high-profile gun violence, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy early in the 1960s. This law was later modified in 1986 by the passage of the Firearm Owners Protection Act, which gave certain powers over gun ownership back to the states. (Cameron, 2013) Denying handgun purchases to people with criminal convictions cuts the risk of us committing new gun or violent crimes by 20 - 30%. Handgun purchasers with at least one prior misdemeanor, not even a felony, were more than 7 times as likely as those with no criminal history to be charged with new offenses over a 15-year period. (Luo, 2011)
The topic of felon gun ownership is hotly contested across the nation. Americans associate gun ownership with the very foundation of our culture. We know that a strong government needs citizens willing to stand up and fight for their inalienable rights. We have been raised on traditions of hunting seasons with our fathers. We associate gun ownership with freedom and that makes the hard truth that felons cannot own guns a serious hardship for some. The problem with regaining our right to bear arms is that all of the facts and statistics support the removal of gun rights. If you are a felon seeking to regain your right to bear arms, you need to focus instead on a full pardon from your state. Even if you get a pardon, the federal government may still deny your rights. The fact is simple: if you're a felon, you may not own a gun again. There are some few states that will reinstate your rights for certain, non-violent convictions, but the majority of felons will never own a gun again. My suggestion to you is to pick up bow hunting.
Ability to Freely Travel:
The vast majority of us will never have any restrictions placed upon ourselves for traveling between states, or across country borders. The U.S. is pretty relaxed on restricting our movements, unless we pose a threat to society, or are on some form of probation/parole. The problem comes from the other countries you may be entering and their laws related to criminal convictions. Entering Canada with a computer crime felony is very easy, but entering with a misdemeanor DUI charge will result in a long meeting in a dark office where someone from Border Patrol will decide if they want to let you in or not.
Before you decide to visit another country, do yourself a big favor and contact the U.S. State Department, or the consulate of the country you are hoping to visit. They will brief you on the current atmosphere of the country and whether or not you'll be able to cross the border without a special circumstance, or accompanying paperwork. Make sure you contact them well ahead of the time of your travel as it may take long to get a proper response. Never enter a country without first checking their laws. There are some harsh realities to traveling with a criminal conviction and it is not uncommon for some of us to be immediately detained upon entry onto foreign soil. A lot of these restrictions will depend on the nature and seriousness of your conviction. It is almost always related to whether or not you pose a threat to society in the future.
Barred from Employment, Loss of License, or Permits:
We as a segment of society are considered untrustworthy with certain job roles because we broke the law. Banking and financial institutions tend to not want to hire any of us with a crime related to money. Medical institutions will not hire you with a prior drug conviction that they view may lead to future theft of narcotics while on the job. Law enforcement will not touch your resume with a 100-foot long pole if you have a criminal past. Most jobs related to working with children will also require some form of background check. The only way to overcome these realities is by being able to sit down with the person in charge of hiring and explaining your individual situation face to face. The reality is that most will never get that far. You are far better off working in a different capacity for a couple of years after your incarceration in order to earn trust and a reputation as a quality worker before you attempt employment in a field related to your conviction.
There is a long list of professions that may lose their permits, or licenses, due a felony conviction. People who work in public service, radiology, psychology, architecture, accountants, midwives, and many, many more should check with their individual licensing agency as soon as they suspect they may be convicted of a felony. It is a real challenge to change careers after you have put in so much time and effort, but that may be a reality of your new circumstances. It is always better to get a head of the repercussions of your crime instead of playing catch up later. Most of these agencies will have some form of appeal process, or reinstatement that you should read up on so you can plan on the future. Again, this will vary wildly based upon your individual conviction.
Loss of Public Programs:
This is one of the worst thing we do in society; refusing help to those in need based on their criminal history. How can we change the criminal recidivism rate if we are not providing a basic road to reach that change? The two biggest problems with denying social services to felons involves housing and education. Public housing may be refused to tenants who have been convicted of a felony. This makes it incredibly hard for them to find a place to live when they do not have the income to afford a normal renting situation. Without a home, we are more likely to turn back to a life of crime for no other reason than we know at least then we were earning enough to live.
The other problem is educational support. We already know that education is the silver bullet to crime, but the local, state and federal governments all have decided to remove student aid programs to felons convicted of drug related crimes. Their reasoning is valid. They do not want public money going to any of us who may use it for buying illegal drugs. However, they should also make the attempt to work with those of us with in drug related counseling programs who have been clean for a certain number of years; let's say five.
There are other government programs like food stamps or transportation that also may be removed from us due to our past criminal conviction. If you fear that your conviction may result in these consequences, speak with your lawyer or PO and find out how to overcome them in the short term while you rebuild the foundations of your life.
Loss of Some, or all Parental Rights:
Any parent who has been released and reunited with their child tends to have one goal, to keep their kids safe from harm again. Some parents have a reoccurring cycle of destructive behavior and do not seem to care about much, but these types of parents are in the minority. The bulk of parents in the world tend to not want to be labeled and just want to prove themselves worthy of being a parent. The best way to help yourself reunite with your children is to first find a job, especially for men as this is valuable to their mental health. They need to feel important, valuable, needed, seen as providers and productive. Staying at home all day seems to make recently released fathers depressed and withdrawn. This also can potentially lead to a few habits that are not good for the health of the family; like alcoholism, hanging out with a bad crew, or wasting money on needless items.
Another way of improving your parental relationship with your children is by being heavily involved in their personal educations. Make time every day to ask your kids how their school day went. Make an effort to know what type of people your kids hang around. Find out what activities they are passionate about and help them achieve new levels in those activities. Just being present in the active lives of your kids will go a long way to improving your relationship as they will view you as truly interested in their well being.
If you have lost your parental rights due to incarceration, you are in for a long road to reunification. How fast and how effortless this process will happen is going to be weighted more to you than the courts. If you have other baggage to bring to the table that you need to deal with first, then that is going to prolong the situation even more. Effort and the ability to handle responsibility go a very long way in the eyes of any Child Protective Service staff member. The ultimate goal of these offices is to reunite children with their parents, but they won't do it if the parents are not willing, or able to manage their own lives. Get your own house together before you attempt to reunite with your child. You owe them that at least.
Duty to Serve on a Jury:
Jury Duty is a required service for all citizens in order to decide the legal proceedings for their peers. It has been a foundational pillar of the legal system ever since the Magna Carta was signed and before our Constitution and Bill of Rights were enacted. In most cases if you have been convicted of a felony you won't be able to serve on a jury. The simple reason is because jury selection is drawn from registered voters. As the majority of us aren't allowed to vote in most states, our names never get pulled for jury duty.
The other reason is because a felony conviction is typically related to a major crime. Prosecutors and defense attorneys do not want to put us in the jury pool because we cannot be trusted to give an unbiased opinion. We have been tarnished from our interaction with the legal system in the past and attorneys do not trust our judgment for the future. If you have had your rights restored, or have received a pardon, or expungement, you will most likely be able to serve on a jury.
Losing Your Personal Anonymity:
Probably the most annoying result of a felony conviction is the complete loss of anonymity both online and offline. Typing a felon's name and state into Google will almost always result in a news story about their crime. Our ability to reenter society without having to constantly wear the mantle of criminal has long since been lost due to the internet era. This is the trade-off we make for having one of the greatest communication and educational tools ever created. We are capable of looking up any information we desire, but so is everyone else.
There are some tools that can reduce your online footprint. You may contact erroneous websites and have them remove their data related to you if it is false, but you cannot stop the newspaper archives from posting about your crime. Your best bet is to develop strong relationships online and off so that the people you interact with the most will be willing to overlook your past mistakes. Over time, new people will make mistakes and their names will pop up on search engines before yours. You can always change your name, but I would caution you to do this before you have received a pardon, or any other legal relief from your crime as a pardon board may look poorly on your willingness to change the public perception of your past. They may view this as you trying to hide from your criminal conviction.