Commentary

10.31.13

We all make mistakes. Some of us pay for them for the rest of our lives.

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On Saturday, November 2, 2013 a coalition of faith groups, unions, professional associations, community groups, and rights organizations (including the ACLU of Ohio) will hold a rally at the Ohio Statehouse. At this rally, we will call on Ohio lawmakers to halt the death penalty, end the war on drugs and the epidemic of mass incarceration, break the many reentry barriers for the formerly incarcerated, and put a stop to “stand your ground” proposals in Ohio.

In advance of the rally, the ACLU of Ohio will be blogging about each of these four important issues. In this post, staff member Melissa Bilancini writes about barriers faced by returning citizens.

In 2013, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC) released 21,833 individuals. Twenty-one thousand, eight hundred thirty-three returning citizens, having served their sentences, were sent out into the world – with a scarlet F on their records.

That scarlet F – that felony conviction – creates a stigma that formerly incarcerated individuals are “bad people.” It also creates barriers that folks must overcome in order to lead successful lives.

To start, let’s get something straight. I am not championing the dissolution of the criminal justice system. However, given the significant problems that Ohio has with over incarceration, we need to have a real conversation as a community about what to do about Ohio’s felony factories.

This conversation must begin with the recognition that we all make mistakes.

Next, we must recognize that we cannot continue to punish those who have paid their debts to society.

These punishments come in many form.

Though individuals with felony convictions can vote in Ohio, many don’t know that they can. (And several other states, like Alabama, ban individuals with certain felonies from their voter roles. Forever. These state-to-state inconsistencies lead to confusion in Ohio.)

Having a felony record can negatively affect an individual’s ability to obtain employment. In 2012, legislation was passed to broaden the ability of individuals with felony convictions to obtain various licenses for employment. While this was a good start, more reform is needed to reduce barriers to employment. One bill pending in the General Assembly would help. H.B. 235 would prohibit employers from asking on applications if an individual has been convicted of a felony. “Banning the Box,” is an effort that’s been implemented in several cities across Ohio. The goal is to judge applicants on their merits, not their mistakes.

Though 80% of those entering Ohio’s prisons have a documented history of drug and alcohol abuse, we inadequately address substance abuse problems both inside and outside of prison. We need to better fund treatment facilities, reduce waiting periods for those seeking treatment, and ensure that affordable treatment is available for the uninsured.

Mental health disorders and chronic and infectious disease are far more prevalent among prison populations than the general public. While most individuals will have access to health care while incarcerated, mental health treatment is limited, and access to both physical and mental health care are significantly more difficult for those returning to their communities.

Ohioans have an opportunity to improve the outlook for those leaving the criminal justice system.

Join us on November 2 as we stand on the side of justice at the Ohio Statehouse and call on lawmakers to remove obstacles facing those leaving prison. Because everyone deserves a clean start.

 

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