Paying our debts

All Americans owe a profound personal debt, one that never can be repaid. We are heirs to the courage, vision and sacrifices of the Founders, and obligated to all those who fought to establish, and subsequently protect in war and peace this noble democratic experiment in political liberty. But some Americans owe another very different kind of debt to society, by dint of having committed felonies. Once convicted, they become known as 'felons' for the rest of their lives. Properly speaking, the only 'ex—felons' are those few whose convictions are overturned.

In some states, such as Florida, Virginia, Iowa, or Kentucky, felons are denied the right to vote. In other states, like California, convicted felons are denied access to certain forms of public assistance. Everywhere, there is suspicion of those who check the 'yes' box on employment applications, when asked if they have ever been convicted of a crime.

But this lifelong status rankles many. Noting that felons able to vote tend to support Democrats by margins as high as 9 to 1, a widespread movement exists in states denying them the franchise, to restore the right to vote to felons. Supporters cannily pitch this as a civil rights issue, because blacks are disproportionately represented among the ranks of felons. The movement trumpets the notion that Gore would be President if Florida's felons' franchise were not frustrated.

But now in California (where else?), a new movement is gathering momentum, to erase all distinctions between felons and non—felons in the operation of society's institutions. A group enigmatically titled 'All of Us or None' held its first convention  in Oakland over the weekend. Its logo displays an upraised black fist.

The rhetoric employed by its members stresses four themes: 1) 'Civil Rights,' implicitly playing the race card, As one member put it, 'It's legal to discriminate against someone who has been in prison.' 2) Compassion for those who are nobly trying to rehabilitate themselves after release from prison, but are hindered by society's unfair prejudice. 3) Pragmatism. If felons cannot find employment, they will not successfully re—integrate into society, and therefore be more inclined to recidivism; 4) Fairness. "... you are continuing the punishment after they have paid their debt," according to Yvonne Cooks, who recently completed a 20 year sentence.

Should society discriminate against felons? Absolutely yes! The commission of a serious crime is a volitional act not comparable to race or any other ascriptive factor. A felon has demonstrated a willingness to transgress some of society's most serious limits, and mostly likely inflict deep harm on others. Employers, who are responsible for the behavior of their employees, are entitled to know if an applicant has a history of violating the rules.

Should we be compassionate toward those who are released from prison and attempting to follow society's rules? Again, yes. But compassion should not be blind to the risks involved, nor should compassion be limited to the criminal. Recidivism rates for felons are very high. Blind compassion puts at risk those who might be harmed in the future, by the very real risks associated with ex—convicts' tendency to re—offend. They have every right to discriminate in order to protect themselves.

To be sure, everyone has an interest in providing reasonable opportunities for felons to rehabilitate themselves. It does no good to leave but one path — crime — open to those released from lengthy prison terms. By all means, provide job training, counseling, and other support services. But felons cannot expect to stand on equal footing with the rest of us, precisely because they have not stood with the rest of us in obedience to the law.

This brings up the 'I've paid my debt to society, so stop discriminating against me' argument. Frankly, I find this contention infuriating. Merely serving a prison term does not square the debt; it only satisfies the law. The harm done by a criminal cannot be undone. Obviously, murder victims can never be restored to life, and their families' loss never undone. But all crime has lasting effects.

Victims of crime almost always experience some form of trauma, even from nonviolent crimes. I am thankful that I have never been physically victimized, but I have been burglarized. I miss the personal items they took, though most have been replaced. Home has never again felt quite as safe as it did in my halcyon pre—burglary days. Perhaps it is an advantage, in that it better equips me to evaluate the risks of suffering from other crimes, but it is not something I would voluntarily choose. The criminal(s) who burglarized my home will never square that debt to me, even in the unlikely event they are ever apprehended.

I don't know what crime Yvonne Cooks committed, which drew a 20 year sentence. But I would guess that there are after—effects which have not disappeared merely because she walked out of the prison gates after the end of her incarceration. I would suggest to her that having committed a serious crime, she has placed herself in the unpleasant status she now occupies. She has not paid, and will never be able to pay her debt.

Citizenship is not merely an accident of birth or a simple legal status. It is also a set of responsibilities towards others. Those who violate the most important rules are not fulfilling their obligations of citizenship, and therefore, in justice, lose full access to the rights of citizenship. Fair is fair.

All Americans owe a profound personal debt, one that never can be repaid. We are heirs to the courage, vision and sacrifices of the Founders, and obligated to all those who fought to establish, and subsequently protect in war and peace this noble democratic experiment in political liberty. But some Americans owe another very different kind of debt to society, by dint of having committed felonies. Once convicted, they become known as 'felons' for the rest of their lives. Properly speaking, the only 'ex—felons' are those few whose convictions are overturned.

In some states, such as Florida, Virginia, Iowa, or Kentucky, felons are denied the right to vote. In other states, like California, convicted felons are denied access to certain forms of public assistance. Everywhere, there is suspicion of those who check the 'yes' box on employment applications, when asked if they have ever been convicted of a crime.

But this lifelong status rankles many. Noting that felons able to vote tend to support Democrats by margins as high as 9 to 1, a widespread movement exists in states denying them the franchise, to restore the right to vote to felons. Supporters cannily pitch this as a civil rights issue, because blacks are disproportionately represented among the ranks of felons. The movement trumpets the notion that Gore would be President if Florida's felons' franchise were not frustrated.

But now in California (where else?), a new movement is gathering momentum, to erase all distinctions between felons and non—felons in the operation of society's institutions. A group enigmatically titled 'All of Us or None' held its first convention  in Oakland over the weekend. Its logo displays an upraised black fist.

The rhetoric employed by its members stresses four themes: 1) 'Civil Rights,' implicitly playing the race card, As one member put it, 'It's legal to discriminate against someone who has been in prison.' 2) Compassion for those who are nobly trying to rehabilitate themselves after release from prison, but are hindered by society's unfair prejudice. 3) Pragmatism. If felons cannot find employment, they will not successfully re—integrate into society, and therefore be more inclined to recidivism; 4) Fairness. "... you are continuing the punishment after they have paid their debt," according to Yvonne Cooks, who recently completed a 20 year sentence.

Should society discriminate against felons? Absolutely yes! The commission of a serious crime is a volitional act not comparable to race or any other ascriptive factor. A felon has demonstrated a willingness to transgress some of society's most serious limits, and mostly likely inflict deep harm on others. Employers, who are responsible for the behavior of their employees, are entitled to know if an applicant has a history of violating the rules.

Should we be compassionate toward those who are released from prison and attempting to follow society's rules? Again, yes. But compassion should not be blind to the risks involved, nor should compassion be limited to the criminal. Recidivism rates for felons are very high. Blind compassion puts at risk those who might be harmed in the future, by the very real risks associated with ex—convicts' tendency to re—offend. They have every right to discriminate in order to protect themselves.

To be sure, everyone has an interest in providing reasonable opportunities for felons to rehabilitate themselves. It does no good to leave but one path — crime — open to those released from lengthy prison terms. By all means, provide job training, counseling, and other support services. But felons cannot expect to stand on equal footing with the rest of us, precisely because they have not stood with the rest of us in obedience to the law.

This brings up the 'I've paid my debt to society, so stop discriminating against me' argument. Frankly, I find this contention infuriating. Merely serving a prison term does not square the debt; it only satisfies the law. The harm done by a criminal cannot be undone. Obviously, murder victims can never be restored to life, and their families' loss never undone. But all crime has lasting effects.

Victims of crime almost always experience some form of trauma, even from nonviolent crimes. I am thankful that I have never been physically victimized, but I have been burglarized. I miss the personal items they took, though most have been replaced. Home has never again felt quite as safe as it did in my halcyon pre—burglary days. Perhaps it is an advantage, in that it better equips me to evaluate the risks of suffering from other crimes, but it is not something I would voluntarily choose. The criminal(s) who burglarized my home will never square that debt to me, even in the unlikely event they are ever apprehended.

I don't know what crime Yvonne Cooks committed, which drew a 20 year sentence. But I would guess that there are after—effects which have not disappeared merely because she walked out of the prison gates after the end of her incarceration. I would suggest to her that having committed a serious crime, she has placed herself in the unpleasant status she now occupies. She has not paid, and will never be able to pay her debt.

Citizenship is not merely an accident of birth or a simple legal status. It is also a set of responsibilities towards others. Those who violate the most important rules are not fulfilling their obligations of citizenship, and therefore, in justice, lose full access to the rights of citizenship. Fair is fair.