Point Returning Citizens
by Tim Hurley
by Noël Gorden
"Now what?" ...was the first question that came to mind after being released from the Gus Harrison Regional Facility in Adrian, Michigan. I’d just completed an 18-month sentence for acting like a felonious idiot as the result of not protecting my sobriety. To be clear, I’m no victim with an engrossed sense of entitlement. Having transgressed societal boundaries, I deserved to get locked up and was now grateful for it being over and getting on with my life. Landing at a ¾ house in Pontiac for “transitional housing” was the 1st Step. Actually, living there was like a deleted outtake from “Animal House.” In spite of some fellow residents seemingly hell-bent on getting violated and returning to the joint, I chose to set about the process of having my life rebuilt. My AA sponsor extended a warm welcome with this question; “What are you going to do different this time?” That seemed like a fair inquiry. After all, my plans did not work very well. There’s nothing passive about rehabilitation, redemption, restoration and the transition of parole. It’s an inside job that starts with an honest inventory. Without a searching and fearless appraisal of my culpability for the crimes committed and the harm inflicted on others, nothing of substantive value would ever take place. That’s the kind of stuff one can learn from a good sponsor/mentor. For me, that meant getting planted in a church community. It provided me with another layer of accountability as well as the means by which to get off the throne of my own heart, as I really don’t make a very good lord anyway.
Being chased around a tree by a bear makes one neither an expert on trees nor on bears. Therefore, I do not claim to hold the solution for fixing problems in the criminal justice system. However, it was my experience that approximately 70-80% of the guys in prison were there as the result of substance abuse. This has led me to believe that Michigan doesn’t really have a crime problem. We have a massive drug and alcohol problem of which I was a part. There’s no spontaneous remission for the disease of addiction. It’s a progressive illness that kills or maims everyone in its path. One can keep it in remission by proactively working at an intentional program of recovery. Real recovery is a process, not an event. We never graduate. Under the right circumstances, a cucumber can become a pickle, but a pickle will never become a cucumber. My life became pickled years ago and I was the last one to know it. That’s why it’s incumbent on this recovering Irishman to get my ass in the chairs of 12 Step fellowships and make it a part of life’s routine.
Despite stereotypes to the contrary, not all felons and parolees are unredeemed savages. The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) at U-M calls us “returning citizens”. I chuckled when I first heard that term. It’s so PC. Alas, not many others in society view us that way. Through participation in PCAP, a venue was provided by which I could “pay it forward” and make amends. It’s a great outfit of fearless young folks that go right into the Belly Of The Beast to teach the incarcerated how to write and express themselves through the arts. Now equipped and armed with a network comprised of family, friends and fellow sojourners on the road less traveled--the time came to move out of the transitional nest and into an apartment. Due to poor health, I became disabled after a 25-year career as a Civil Servant. While never aspiring to becoming disabled and living on SSD, I’m very grateful for it. Most returning citizens don’t have that benefit. Taking responsibility for one’s actions and working hard are the cornerstones of successful transition.
For those that aren’t as fortunate as I, this transition has become nearly impossible. For those seeking work, having a felony record is not exactly a resume’ enhancer—especially in a poor economy. To that end, there’s a “Ban the Box” initiative sweeping across the country. Simply put, BTB is the removal of a question from employment applications inquiring as to whether or not the applicant has ever been convicted of a felony. Contrary to arguments raised by those opposed to it, it does not prohibit any employer asking about a felony record nor conducting a background check. BTB only makes provision for a convicted felon to get a foot in the door, explain what happened, and perhaps be given a shot at employment. So far, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico and Connecticut have banned the box statewide and five states are looking into their own ban. More than 20 cities have adopted the initiative. This is not about providing lawbreakers with a special status. There are approximately 1.3 million convicted felons in the State of Michigan. One out of every six adults in Michigan has a felony on his or her record. The vast majority of those incarcerated will one day be paroled. Unnecessary impediments to their employment serve no useful purpose. I encourage you to support the Ban The Box initiative. Doesn’t it make sense for “returning citizens” to become productive and contributing members of society?
‘Ban the Box’ advocates argue that public (and possibly private) employers should not be allowed to ask job applicants about prior criminal activity on initial employment applications. They insist that questions like “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” put formerly incarcerated men and women at an unfair disadvantage because there is widespread social stigma against ex-offenders.
Widespread stigma against formerly incarcerated persons would only be unjust if it were somehow undeserved. ‘Ban the Box’ advocates appear to take this point for granted, arguing that prejudice toward ex-offenders does not square away with our commitment to rehabilitation. But what if the point of the criminal justice system is not to rehabilitate people, but to punish them? What if you thought the only reason we send people to prison is to make them realize they have done something society considers wholly unacceptable? Under this retributivist framework, expressing bias toward formerly incarcerated individuals would be justifiable given the fact that they have done something to deserve this societal condemnation in the first place. And insofar as that is true, it seems that any disadvantages they face as a result of this societal condemnation would be fair.
Although this argument may be a bit abstract, it is nowhere near counterintuitive. Consider the reason our country has laws governing criminal behavior. A criminal law, in its most basic form, is an agreement society has reached regarding what it is acceptable for us to do and what is not acceptable for us to do. We reach these agreements because, in doing so, we make it easier for people to peacefully co-exist. Therefore, to knowingly violate even one of these laws is to show some willful disregard for what society has considered it permissible to do. We punish people whenever they commit such transgressions because it is a way for us to express our collective moral outrage toward that individual or group. What all this suggests, then, is that formerly incarcerated persons are not unjustly stigmatized in our society because they are deserving of such treatment. The only question remaining, then, is whether the disadvantages they may face as a result are unfair.
If fairness is to be described as ‘getting what you deserve,’ then the disadvantages ex-offenders face as result of this societal stigma are fair. Had a formerly incarcerated person not committed a crime, then he or she would not be at such a huge disadvantage. This is not to say that ex-offenders should be subject to any type of treatment we wish to impose upon them, but it does suggest that formerly incarcerated persons are not entitled to have their interests considered in the same way non-offenders do because the two groups are differently situated in society. One group has been found to have violated the agreed upon rules of society; whereas, the other has not. This is an important distinction to make because it speaks to how committed a person is to upholding the agreed upon tenants of our society.
It is also important to note the risk that employers face by not receiving this vital piece of information about prospective job applicants. While ‘Ban the Box’ advocates might suggest that having a criminal record says nothing about the likelihood of relapse, nothing could be farther from the truth. But even if that were true, employers should have the right to gather this information as soon as possible given the fact that they ask everyone the same question. Employers distribute their brand and their resources to the applicants that they hire. Consumers designate their money, their time, and their business to the services they seek out. Therefore, a lot is at risk if the employees hired are not dependable or trustworthy. Employers require job applications from all potential employees specifically for this purpose—to distinguish between those who can fulfill their set criteria, and those who can’t. Indeed, the only thing prospective job applicants are entitled to with regard to hiring practices is that they are evaluated under the same criterion as everyone else.
‘Ban the Box’ supporters are noble in their quest to make life easier for formerly incarcerated individuals. But their rationale for eliminating ‘the box’ is misguided at best and flawed at worst. Ex-offenders are not put at an unfair disadvantage in society, because the stigma that comes with being a criminal is deserved and the disadvantages that result from that stigmatization are justifiable. This is not a popular argument, nor a particularly sympathetic one at that. However, it is one that takes into account what it means to live in a society with certain rules and expectations.
About the Issue
Point author: After a 25 year career as a civil servant and waging a life-long losing battle with alcoholism, Tim Hurley made some poor choices with severe consequences that resulted in his incarceration. During that low period of his life, he wrote a story that was accepted and published in a 2010 anthology of short stories by the University of Michigan’s, Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP). Now clean & sober, he works one-day-at-a-time to “pay it forward” with his writing and better lifestyle choices--while attempting to carry the message of recovery to other sick & suffering addicts.
Counterpoint author: Noël Gordon is a Political Science major at the University of Michigan, also minoring in Moral and Political Philosophy. He’s involved in the Michigan Political Union, the Michigan Daily, and the Michigan Journal of Political Science.
Edited by: Lauren Opatowski and Michelle Lu
Cover by: Lucy Zhang