Unavoidable Byproducts of Prisons
Published on Monday, February 19, 2001 in the Chicago Tribune
Unavoidable Byproducts of Prisons
by Salim Muwakkil
The number of ex-inmates living in some inner-city neighborhoods will soon equal the number of other citizens living there, explained Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill) in a recent interview. The congressman was discussing--and bemoaning--the many ways the criminal justice system retards community development.

Davis noted that, with the record numbers of ex-inmates returning from prison, the worst is yet to come. "How can we have a desirable quality of life in many of our communities with such a high number of ex-offenders in the neighborhood who can't get a job?" he asked.

It was a rhetorical question, of course. The answer is as obvious as it is frightening. Prisons have shifted their emphasis from rehabilitation to punishment in recent decades so returning inmates have less training or jobs skills. Without jobs and skills, ex-inmates will either get work in the booming underground economy and eventually return to prison, or wind up on the public dole or homeless. Either way, their communities will suffer.

This is a deadly cycle in which there are no winners. The African-American community loses the agency and energy of black youth at the prime age of family formation, and this further debilitates a crime-ridden community already lacking resources and role models. One small step out of this quandary is being led by Illinois Rep. Constance Howard (D-Chicago), who is expected to introduce legislation in Springfield Friday that speaks directly to these issues. Howard will be presenting seven bills all designed to address one important aspect of the problem that so concerns Davis. Specifically, her legislation requires that all traces of arrests be erased (expunged) from the records of certain citizens.

Two of Howard's measures call for the expunging of arrest records for those charged but not convicted and for those whose convictions were overturned; opposition to those measures, even by law and order fanatics, seems hard to justify.

Two other bills seek automatic expunging of records for minors after their sentences have been served: one focuses on minors convicted as adults and sentenced to probation, and the other on minors sentenced to probation in juvenile court.

Howard's other three measures call for clearing records after offenders have served time for their non-violent crimes and spent additional time crime-free. These measures seem more politically problematic. Law enforcement officials often insist on having arrest records available for criminal investigations and generally resist surrendering those files. And they have a point, since most studies reveal that repeat offenders commit most crimes.

"I understand the perspective of law enforcement," said Rep. Howard. "But at some point somebody's got to give. These ex-inmates can't get adequate employment with prison records," she laments. Although these returning ex-inmates have served their time for their criminal behavior, the stain on their records serves to punish them for the remainder of their lives. "You have to ask, what does it mean to pay your debt to society?" Howard said.

Did I say there are no winners in our dysfunctional criminal justice system? Well, that's not exactly true. Law enforcement agencies, the holders of stock in companies that run prisons, private security firms, corrections officers, police salaries and recruitment, all benefit by making sure that crime remains a frightening specter in our society. This is not to tarnish their motives, only to make a sober assessment of where their best interests lie. As this nation embarked on an incarceration spasm that has made us the world's leading jailer, we've devoted increasing resources to police functions. There's little doubt that were crime to become less of a social concern, police agencies would lose much of their political clout.

We've also created more institutions with a vested interest in a growing crime rate. Small cities, for example, clamor for prison construction to help salvage their local economies.

It's an insidious relationship that needs to be altered. A society that gains economic benefit from social failure is a scavenger culture that ultimately will cannibalize itself. Perhaps the raging success of a movie about a cannibal is a telling metaphor.

I'm not making any specific charges here, but perhaps we should examine those opposing Howard's measures for any "cannibal" connections.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times

Copyright 2001 Chicago Tribune