Perhaps one of the most insidious aspects of our prison system is that even after serving their sentence, the majority of former offenders find themselves unable to extricate themselves from the system. In addition to having the dubious honor of being the largest incarcerator in the world, the United States also has the highest rate of recidivism of any country in the world. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over two-thirds of people released from prison will be rearrested within three years. In Maine, a study of 966 offenders released in 2004 found that 58% of them had been re-incarcerated by May 2008.
While many factors play a part in the revolving criminal justice door, one large contributor is collateral consequences – a set of often-permanent sanctions and restrictions imposed on people with criminal convictions that continue to punish someone long beyond their time spent behind bars. Collateral consequences can vary between states; however, according to the American Bar Association, in Maine there are 1,838 state and federal sanctions (for the full list click here) that accompany many criminal convictions. They range from bans from living in public housing and serving on a jury to ineligibility for acquiring a license to buy or sell potatoes.
95% of offenders in the United States will at some point be returning to their communities. Rather than recognizing that they have paid their debt to society and should be now supported in their transition back home, collateral consequences give society license to continue to exclude, ensuring that the stigma of criminal justice involvement is permanent. Not only is this counter-productive through the lens of public safety, but is in stark contrast to any purported rehabilitative goals of our justice system. In the great state of Maine, we should be holding ourselves to a higher standard.