Opinion: America’s life sentence: fear of being labeled a convict

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The United States correctional system is deeply flawed. In 2014, the Bureau of Justice Statistics stated “within three years of release, about two-thirds of released prisoners were rearrested…more than half were arrested by the end of the first year.”

Flawed policies such as three-strikes, minimum sentences and the forever-label are implemented on the basis of fear-mongering.

“It is an extension of that same process of creating fear of crime and using fear, anger and hate as very powerful motivators,” said criminal Justice Lecturer Dan Dexheimer.

This drive of retribution under the basis of fear is not the direction policies, especially judicial ones, should take.

The prison environment

There is very little direct knowledge of what the prison environment is like. The public idea of prison and prisoners is very rarely based on reality or experience–it is based on perception.

The prison system is very secluded from the rest of the world, both physically and metaphorically. This isolation is a product of the intent to prioritize pure retribution as a method to deal with what gets labeled as “criminalized.” Punishment, no matter how it is conducted, has to be the ultimate value.

“This leads to a person who is hurt, angry, and is still uneducated, unskilled and addicted; just older,” Dexheimer said.  “We expect the thought process of ‘I don’t want to be there’ to be enough.”

Internal implications: institutionalization

Within a prison, there are people who are incarcerated who are not necessarily dangerous.

“There is the distinction between bad people and people who have done a ‘bad thing,’” Dexheimer said. “We keep them there, expose them to bad people, remove them from families, jobs (and) education. Maybe even without being convicted.”

This means the correctional system is taking its original goal of equating freedom to time served, but in a very nonchalant manner. This assumes anyone mildly goes through the system is not only a bad person, but undesirable, regardless of condition or crime. This, then, directly translates into the external world.

External implications: criminalization

Photo by: Taylor Humby.

Once a person has been convicted of a felony–or even a misdemeanor–they are marked for life.

Although we claim to operate under an innocent until proven guilty framework within the judicial system, the results are a negative label that lasts after punishment has been fulfilled. The fear of the label of “convict” is a greater sentence than the one served.

This is a result of policy, particularly in how we punish and respond to crime. We strip away rights from these individuals and bar them from social services such as financial aid, housing assistance and employment, and there is zero blowback for refusing service, according to Dexheimer.

In terms of social reactions, different crimes do evoke different connotations.However, on a paper job application there is rarely a distinction beyond a check in a box that asks a yes or no question.

“You don’t want a person convicted of sex crimes against a child working in a nursery. But a one time burglar in a convenience store may not be hired as a janitor,” Dexheimer said. “For the most part, these application questions are all-encompassing. Which is the problem because there is no divide.”


The solutions to this damaging system are two fold: ideological and institutional.

“The biggest thing that needs to change is the social ideology that criminals are dangerous and that we can do very little for them,” said Dexheimer.

Under previous administrations, it was politically favorable to advocate for stricter correctional tactics as opposed to any other method that was not solely retribution-focused. However, under former President Barack Obama, changes began to take place.

Obama scaled back the “War on Drugs” and eliminated solitary confinement for minors. He also restructured federal sentencing laws and influenced a federal drawback to not go after states for marijuana, according to Dexheimer.

All of these policy changes began taking a step back from the fear tactics that previous presidents had been prioritizing. The focus was more on upholding the law through helping the individual, as opposed to hoping to scare them to the point of social exclusion.

Under President Trump, there are signs of regression and a return to the appeals to fear and anger. Trump has advocated in favor of New York’s stop and frisk policy- a policy that has been ruled unconstitutional and discriminatory. He’s also appointed Jeff Sessions as the acting attorney general.

“Sessions views marijuana as being a very massively dangerous substance,” Dexheimer said. “He wants to bring back D.A.R.E, the war on drugs and federally punishing states that legalize marijuana.”

This is a very apparent regression in the policies that would mitigate the mass incarceration problem. If there is to be any positive change in the status quo, a very clear evaluation and reconstruction of both policing and sentencing laws has to happen. The focus needs to go back to job security, education security and rehabilitation.

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