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In America These Days, You Can Never Be Punished Enough

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In America These Days, You Can Never Be Punished Enough


We will call her Jane Doe.

We really have no choice, given that that’s the only identification found in the court document. Jane is 57, a Jamaica-born permanent U.S. resident living in New York City. She is a licensed nurse and a mother. She is also a convicted felon.

In 2000, Jane, trying to raise two young daughters on $15,000 a year and an $80 weekly child-support check, was recruited by her then-boyfriend for an insurance scam. They staged a car accident and tried to collect on a claim.

It didn’t work. Jane was convicted on fraud charges and sentenced to 15 months in prison. She was released in 2004.

That’s when her ordeal began.

Her debt to society paid, Jane set out looking for work. She was rehired by a former employer and worked there two years. Then the state Office of Professional Discipline suspended her license for two years for professional misconduct — not because she had done anything wrong, but because of the old conviction.

In the years since, Jane has found barricades on every avenue of gainful employment. Job interviews and even job offers mysteriously evaporate when employers learn about her record. She tried to get a business license to start her own company, only to be rejected twice because of it.

Last year, Jane tried to have her record expunged. Judge John Gleeson denied the request a few days ago, explaining that Jane doesn’t meet the legal standard. But Gleeson — the same judge who sent her to prison — then did something extraordinary. He appended to his 32-page opinion a “federal certificate of rehabilitation.”

Understand: There is no such thing. The official-looking document carries no legal force. It’s just something Gleeson had made for Jane so she can show prospective employers that a federal judge considers her rehabilitated. He says a woman who was convicted once, a long time ago, of a nonviolent crime from which she saw no profit and for which she has served her time, ought not be punished for it the rest of her life.

“I had no intention,” wrote Gleeson, “to sentence her to the unending hardship she has endured in the job market.”

If you consider this a heartwarming story, you miss the point.

Yes, Gleeson did a good and generous thing. One hopes it has the desired effect. But it is unconscionable that Jane Doe’s situation ever reached this extreme.

The shift of American penal philosophy from rehabilitation to punishment has had many disastrous effects: prison overcrowding, mass disenfranchisement, fatherless homes. But the most self-defeating effect is embodied in denying ex-felons employment once they’ve served their time. If you deny them the ability to do lawful work, what obvious option is left?

Granted, there are sometimes good reasons to deny a given ex-felon a given job; no daycare should hire a newly released child molester, for example. But what Jane Doe is facing is rooted less in common sense caution than in a new American ethos where punishment never ends.

That should be anathema to a nation of second chances. Lawmakers must enact reforms that curb the power of employers to discriminate against former felons — or that incentivize their hiring. Questions about criminal records should not be allowed on job applications; a person should have the chance to make a good impression at the job interview without being automatically ruled out for doing some stupid thing a long time ago.

Jane Doe was lucky to have Gleeson on her side, but she shouldn’t have needed him. She did something stupid, yes, but she was duly punished for it.

Except that in America these days, you can never be punished enough.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.


Photo: Female inmates look out of the Top Chico prison in Monterrey, Mexico, February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Daniel Becerri 

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a nationally syndicated commentator, journalist, and novelist. Pitts' column for the Miami Herald deals with the intersection between race, politics, and culture, and has won him multiple awards including a Pulitzer Prize in 2004.

The highly regarded novel, Freeman (2009), is his most recent book.

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  1. Phil Christensen March 20, 2016

    This is just a single spot of mold on the wall of house which is rotten to the core. Militarized police, over-charging prosecutors, and weaponized agencies at the state and federal level all contribute to this. And one’s ideology doesn’t matter. Whether you’re a “law and order” conservative or a “special needs” progressive, you voted for this.

    1. RED March 21, 2016

      Amen brother!! I’m sick to death of the #fewbadapples routine! The fact is the ENTIRE ORCHARD is rotten to the core! From the violent sociopath blue thugs to the vindictive power hungry judges. It disgusts me watching cop or lawyer shows where the defendant is always given a vigorous defense and rules of evidence are followed! It’s frigging joke, almost no defendant gets such treatment, unless your rich, really rich. ‘Cause the entire system is designed to take any and all power away from the peasants.

  2. yabbed March 20, 2016

    This unending punishment is not in keeping with the tenants of Christianity to which most of our politicians tell us they subscribe.

  3. barneycs March 20, 2016

    Like I always say this supposed Christian country is truly anti-Christ especially the supposed right wing Christian who never forgive! Let he who has never sinned throw the first stone. Our justice system sucks and our laws punishing felons of nonviolent crimes forever is really stupid because they may turn to crime again if they cannot find legal employment

  4. Brian Templeton March 20, 2016

    This is not surprising considering in the past that Americans voted for a “Law & Order” Republican administration. Just wait and see what is going to happen whenever they gain the control of the presidency in the future!

  5. Otto T. Goat March 20, 2016

    She should go back to Jamaica.

    1. charleo1 March 20, 2016

      The RW solution to everything…Get ’em out, out, OUT!!! Send ’em back to Africa, build a wall, dig a moat, deport ’em all, punch ’em in the face, carry ’em out, out, out, on stretchers!!! It’s why most of the World believes we’ve lost our cotton pickin’ minds!

      1. dtgraham March 21, 2016

        I almost sort of admire Otto for his total Republican evil purity. On another thread in which we’re the only two commenters, Otto has so far endorsed quarantining all gay Americans on an island. I’m still waiting for his probable approval of the ‘final solution’ for all gay people. He seems to be heading in that direction in our discussions.

        Otto would be a great Lee Atwater for Trump.

    2. apzzyk March 20, 2016

      Did you know that Liberace just about killed his mother – someone told him to go back where he came from with his piano.

    3. Daniel Jones March 21, 2016

      She *did* her time, she’s *been legit since*, and she’s *a legal citizen* you heartless, brainless, spineless freak of nature!

      Christ, I really, honestly feel like this nation’s turning into a botched attempt at Omelas some days. (As in “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. LeGuin)

    4. The Garbage has confused himself with a garbageman.

    5. RED March 21, 2016

      Let me know when we get to start shipping people out for being scumbags! Personally I think that would be a great day! Then we can finally get rid of the disgusting ignorant Cons, starting with Otto. Although perhaps it’s a bit unfair since we know Otto has a development disorder and a brain sickness. But what the heck, we won’t miss ’em at all!

  6. Andrew Armstrong March 22, 2016

    Photo: Female inmates look out of the Top Chico prison in Monterrey, Mexico, February 11, 2016.

    Couldn’t find a picture of Rikers Island? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rikers_Island

    Did it once, do it twice. Anyone ever studied the amount of returning “EX-con’s” to prison? Its staggering.

  7. George Carroll March 23, 2016

    The legal and penal systems employ 100’s of thousands of people, both directly (judges, prison guards, parole officers, etc.) and indirectly (construction people to build prisons, suppliers of food for prisoners, etc.) and this is a Machine that must constantly be fed…with PRISONERS. if the Machine started letting people go instead of locking them up, MILLIONS of people would go without work. that is the dirty little secret that is never discussed; locking people up is a multi-billion dollar industry funded 100% by the tax payer. So all you people who keep screaming, “Lock ’em up and throw away the key” need to think about how much that mentality is costing you…and why the Machine can’t WAIT to screw you over when YOU screw up.


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