Leonard Pitts Jr.: In America these days, you can never be punished enough

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

 

We will call her Jane Doe.

We really have no choice, given that that’s the only identification found in the court document. Jane is 57, a Jamaica-born permanent U.S. resident living in New York City. She is a licensed nurse and a mother. She is also a convicted felon.

In 2000, Jane, trying to raise two young daughters on $15,000 a year and an $80 weekly child-support check, was recruited by her then-boyfriend for an insurance scam. They staged a car accident and tried to collect on a claim.

It didn’t work. Jane was convicted on fraud charges and sentenced to 15 months in prison. She was released in 2004.

That’s when her ordeal began.

Her debt to society paid, Jane set out looking for work. She was rehired by a former employer and worked there two years. Then the state Office of Professional Discipline suspended her license for two years for professional misconduct — not because she had done anything wrong, but because of the old conviction.

In the years since, Jane has found barricades on every avenue of gainful employment. Job interviews and even job offers mysteriously evaporate when employers learn about her record. She tried to get a business license to start her own company, only to be rejected twice because of it.

Last year, Jane tried to have her record expunged. Judge John Gleeson denied the request a few days ago, explaining that Jane doesn’t meet the legal standard. But Gleeson — the same judge who sent her to prison — then did something extraordinary. He appended to his 32-page opinion a “federal certificate of rehabilitation.”

Understand: There is no such thing. The official-looking document carries no legal force. It’s just something Gleeson had made for Jane so she can show prospective employers that a federal judge considers her rehabilitated. He says a woman who was convicted once, a long time ago, of a nonviolent crime from which she saw no profit and for which she has served her time, ought not be punished for it the rest of her life.

“I had no intention,” wrote Gleeson, “to sentence her to the unending hardship she has endured in the job market.”

If you consider this a heartwarming story, you miss the point.

Yes, Gleeson did a good and generous thing. One hopes it has the desired effect. But it is unconscionable that Jane Doe’s situation ever reached this extreme.

The shift of American penal philosophy from rehabilitation to punishment has had many disastrous effects: prison overcrowding, mass disenfranchisement, fatherless homes. But the most self-defeating effect is embodied in denying ex-felons employment once they’ve served their time. If you deny them the ability to do lawful work, what obvious option is left?

Granted, there are sometimes good reasons to deny a given ex-felon a given job; no daycare should hire a newly released child molester, for example. But what Jane Doe is facing is rooted less in common sense caution than in a new American ethos where punishment never ends.

That should be anathema to a nation of second chances. Lawmakers must enact reforms that curb the power of employers to discriminate against former felons — or that incentivize their hiring. Questions about criminal records should not be allowed on job applications; a person should have the chance to make a good impression at the job interview without being automatically ruled out for doing some stupid thing a long time ago.

Jane Doe was lucky to have Gleeson on her side, but she shouldn’t have needed him. She did something stupid, yes, but she was duly punished for it.

Except that in America these days, you can never be punished enough.

Email: lpitts@miamiherald.com

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