Dear Member of Congress
I am writing on behalf of the thousands of young men and women who, having been convicted of a Federal Felony and, regardless of the sentence handed down by the courts and having “paid their debt to society”, are also being handed a hidden life sentence that is not a part of any judicial proceeding. There is currently no appeal process for this life sentence.
I am speaking of the first time, non-violent offender who, due to the current federal policy, must spend the rest of their lives bearing the stigma of a federal felony conviction.
Some of these offenders are only sentenced to probationary periods of six to twelve months so little was their involvement. Yet they must suffer the same life sentence as one who committed a much more serious violent crime. This is not justice.
Under current federal law, punishment for a felony offense amounts to a life sentence even though the offender has supposedly “paid his full debt to society.” Most, if not all, states provide a path for the expungement of criminal records for non-violent offenders when certain requirements are met. In fact many federal convictions, if being heard in state courts, would never progress to the sentencing phase in the first place. In many cases, offenders in state courts have the benefit of pre-trial intervention that allows them a second chance.
In the case of a federal charge, no such avenues exist. Once a person is convicted of a federal felony their record cannot be expunged, not even by Presidential pardon. This is one of the most unjust and unfair practices in this country. A first time, non-violent offender who has paid their full debt deserves a second chance. They deserve an opportunity to earn their lives back. These people are not “hardened criminals.” Rather they are quite ordinary people who have made a bad decision. They know it, they take full responsibility for their actions and they are full of remorse for the pain that they have caused to their families. Many are so called “white collar” offenders who had very good jobs before they made a mistake. Even someone like Martha Stewart fits this category. However, unlike Ms. Stewart most of these people do not have a merchandizing empire to fall back on. Most will never be able to regain their previous position. They are disenfranchised in to many ways to enumerate here. I challenge you to go to a minimum security Federal Camp on visiting day, as that is where most of these people are serving their sentences, and watch these completely ordinary American citizens, they are still citizens, try to maintain some semblance of family. Watch the fathers with their wives and young children and then tell me that these families do not deserve an opportunity to earn a second chance.
There is much rhetoric from many in the justice system about how much is being done to rehabilitate those who have committed a crime, how much is being done to prepare them for their return to society. These are hollow, meaningless words when the reality is that we do everything possible to hamper previous offenders from regaining a productive place in society. Then we raise a hue and cry about how high the recidivism rate is.
Therefore I am asking that you, as a member of Congress, who has the lives of these people in your hands, support and pass H. R. 1529 sponsored by Congressman Rangel. Some of you are previous co-sponsors of this bill. Previous versions of this bill have been allowed to die in committee. Please do not allow this to happen again. This is one of the most human and humane pieces of legislation that I have ever seen. The positive impact of this bill is incalculable. It is only right and just that federal law also allow former offenders the ability to lead productive lives without the stigma of a felony conviction haunting and handicapping them for the rest of their life.
We incarcerate more people than any other country on the planet. In our current economic situation we should be using the many less expensive, more effective methods available. The only real way to reduce the inmate population and reduce the number of felons is to ensure that imprisonment is a method of last resort. We should re-write the mandatory sentencing laws that have filled prisons to bursting with nonviolent offenders who are doomed to remain trapped at the very margins of society unless you use your power to correct this travesty of justice.
The concept of “permanent punishment” with no hope of restoration for a non-violent first offender is void of any of the commonly held concepts of fairness. This bill is not and you must not treat it as a partisan issue. It is not Democrat/Republican, Conservative/Liberal or Black/White. Rather it is simply doing the right thing. Compassion and mercy should not be viewed as being “soft on crime.” Please take immediate action. Add your support and pass this most worthy bill.