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Serving People from Arrest to Reintegration

Abolish Lifetime Bans for Ex-Felons

  • Organization: N/A
  • Author: Shawn Bushway
  • Document Type: Report
  • Date Created: Thursday, December 06, 2007
  • Submitted: Thursday, December 06, 2007
  • Attachment(s): PDF

Approximately 16 million United States citizens have been convicted of felony offenses. At least 14 million of these ex-felons are unconfined, and at least 9 million have completed the sanctions ordered by the criminal justice system and are under no official supervision (Uggen et al., 2006). Upon conviction for a felony offense and continuing past release from prison and parole, sometimes for life, ex-felons are subject to a wide array of limitations on work, education, family, and civic activities. These bans are sometimes used as explicit forms of additional punishment (i.e., voting bans) and sometimes invoked to protect vulnerable populations. Serious ethical concerns exist about these types of officially-sanctioned collateral consequences because they go beyond punishment within the criminal justice system. These ethical concerns are balanced against the fact that ex offenders are undeniably at a higher risk for crime than nonoffenders. The exact calculus of this balance is outside the realm of social science. But social science research can calibrate the risk associated with a criminal history record, and we feel safe in concluding that explicit lifetime bans cannot be justified on the basis of safety or concerns about crime risk. Age and time since last offense can help predict current offending risk. Older offenders and individuals who stay arrest-free for 7 years or more simply have very little risk for future crime, and this risk is similar to that of


We are not suggesting that all risk-based collateral consequences for exoffenders should be abolished. In our opinion, social science research has not proven that all collateral consequences are necessarily bad public policy. Ex-offenders with recent criminal histories are plainly at increased levels of risk, so short-term risk-based consequences may serve a useful purpose. For public safety reasons, and for purposes of encouraging desistance from crime, individuals with a substantial increased risk of reoffending may be identified and treated differently. Furthermore, a real possibility exists that employers and others who believe criminal history records are relevant will statistically discriminate on the basis of factors correlated with criminal history records (i.e., race) if denied the opportunity to use the information in criminal history records (Bushway,2004). Such a policy would be especially harmful to the members of the group who did not have criminal records.

We also see the real possibility that the existence of lifetime bans might create a hopeless environment that can trap an ex-offender and provide little incentive to adopt a prosocial attitude. Some evidence exists that as the prevalence of lifetime bans has increased (Travis, 2002) so have recidivism rates, particularly among drug offenders who have been specifically targeted by legislative bans. The 3-year reconviction rate of drug offenders increased by 33% from 1983 to 1994 (Hughes and Wilson, 2004). Although we know of no research on the causal impact of lifetime bans, some research suggests that the abolishment of parole release reduces incentives for good behavior, reduces program participation in prison, and increases recidivism (e.g., Kuziemko, 2006). We develop these arguments below after a brief description of some of the lifetime bans that currently exist.

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