“If you do an adult crime do the adult time . . . . No cable tv in the prisons . . . . Abolish parole.
“These slogans have done nothing more then result in a waste of taxpayers’ money and a country that locks up a higher proportion of its country then any other country in the world,” said U.S Representative Robert Scott, opening up the panel on the collateral consequences of criminal convictions. Scott continued to point out the ironies of our current crime-reduction strategies, discussing the educational, employment, and professional consequences of a criminal conviction. His point, that none of these consequences have anything to do with rehabilitation or putting people on the right track, resonated with the crowd and was echoed by some of the other speakers.
If you are convicted of possessing drugs, you become unable to obtain a student loan, and consequently unable to afford an education. Certain criminal convictions, moreover, may prompt denial of the professional license you need to continue working in your trade. Panelist Cynthia Jones, law professor at American University and chair of the board of trustees of the Public Defender Services for DC, pointed out that many people who spend their time in prison learning a skill, such as cutting hair, return to society only to be denied a license to practice their new trade.
Melvyn Weiss, a former attorney who recently spent 30 months in prison and lost his bar license as a result of his conviction, continued discussion of the theme. More touching then his own story however, was the insight he provided into the lives of the people whom he got to know during his time in prison and at a half-way house. He asked the audience how it is possible for a person to reintegrate into society after serving their time when the person then becomes an economic prisoner to the fines and fees they must pay. Weiss, who deemed himself a fatherly figure to many of his follow inmates, also stated his frustration at being unable to continue to provide support for those he got to know in prison; stringent probation terms ban him from contacting anyone who has ever been convicted of a felony.
When discussing possible solutions for the problem, Rep. Scott expressed his frustration with the legislature, stating, “it’s hard to get people to deliberate when a sound byte can get people a 60- or 70-point jump in the polls.”