Now that the majority in the General Assembly is more Democratic and liberal, the legislature is paying more attention to the plight of prisoners and former offenders. While the attention is welcome, it has been entirely of the bleeding-heart variety, not very thoughtful - leading only toward a policy of erasing or concealing criminal records, since those records are impediments to former offenders as they return to society.
Of course there is a strong public interest in reintegrating former offenders. Society needs them to be productive and self-supporting so they don’t return to crime or kill themselves in despair.
But the public interest in access to criminal records is just as strong.
For how can any potential employee, tenant, borrower, or romantic partner be evaluated when government aims to keep the public ignorant?
Besides, erasing or concealing criminal records won’t be as helpful to former offenders as some legislators think.
Any conscientious employer, landlord, or lender will notice crime-caused gaps in a former offender’s employment history, and any self-respecting person will want to know a date’s background before they go home together.
So former offenders should always have some explaining to do. But some state legislators and the legislature’s recently created study group, the Council on the Collateral Consequences of a Criminal Conviction, seem to think otherwise.
Members of the council recently visited the state prison in Somers to research what are said to be the scores of state laws that make life harder for former offenders. According to a Connecticut Mirror report, council members interviewed 25 prisoners who will be released soon, and some prisoners said they already know they will have trouble getting jobs and housing because they have been in and out of prison before.
Legislators and council members call this “discrimination” as if discrimination is always irrational and bigoted. But “discrimination” really isn’t a dirty word. It is a necessity of life. It is the recognition of differences, like the difference between good and bad, safe and unsafe, skilled and unskilled, and reliable and unreliable.
Former offenders will always be competing for jobs, housing, and romantic partners with people who have no criminal records.
It cannot be otherwise. For why should people who have lived within the law not have an advantage over those who have broken the law? If there is no advantage in obeying the law, the law is pointless.
Besides, legislators pursuing erasure or concealment of criminal records don’t seem to realize that society has only as much crime as it legislates, nor that much criminality arises from victimless crime - particularly drug criminalization - as well as from the negligent parenting facilitated by welfare policy and from public education’s practice of social promotion, which produces many young adults without job and life skills. Elected officials will benefit from erasure or concealment of criminal records because it will conceal their responsibility for the awful results of government’s mistaken policies.
Will state government ever care enough about former offenders to indemnify their employers, landlords, and romantic partners? Of course not. But state government easily enough could give former offenders rudimentary paid jobs, medical insurance, and housing to help settle them in their first year or two out of prison.
Indeed, offenders should get much more job training in prison and it might be good at sentencing in court to condition their release on their showing they have the skills needed to make an honest living.
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut.