The stigma associated with being an ex-felon in the United States is difficult to comprehend. Many spend their lifetime struggling to regain their personal respect, along with dignity in the communities in which they live.

Ex-felons carry the stigma of being convicted for life — the equivalent of a scarlet letter — never letting you forget that at one point in your past, you committed a crime.

The consequences and stigma of a felony conviction last far longer than the amount of time spent in prison or on parole. In many cases, it lasts a lifetime. In addition to time served pay a debt to society behind bars, many felony offenders are denied the licenses they need for certain jobs, lose their right to vote in may states, are denied parental rights, driver’s licenses, student loans, residency in public housing, and certain public benefits.  These losses are the “collateral consequences” — the most severe effect of a felony conviction. The stigma and the collateral consequences are, undoubtably, contributing factors to why 60% of the people who are released from prison, return to prison within 3 years –many of them much quicker!

An article published by the Journal of the American Bar Association listed the barriers confronting ex-prisoners today. They summed it all up by saying, “Ex-offenders face tens of thousands of legal restrictions, bias and limits on their rights.” Some experts estimate that today’s ex-prisoners may face up to 50,000 legally-mandated collateral consequences, including restrictions on housing, employment, public benefits, and immigration.

The moment a felon is released from prison, they face many of life’s most important decisions: Where they will live, where will they find a job, how will they get transportation, pay for food and a roof over their heads?

People coming out of prison already carry a heavy burden. Many have spotty work histories, low education levels, issues around substance abuse and mental health. The consequences of being labeled a felon for their entire lives, years after they may have served the debt to society, creates a barrier that can make it very difficult to join society as a productive member.

Ex-felons have a much lower rate of recidivating when they are released to stable living environment and caring families. Without these two safety nets, most ex-felons are, what is called “DOA” –Doomed on Arrival.

Things are changing. Many Americans are becoming more tolerant of ex-felons in areas such as sports, media, education, and the military.  However, in many cases, corporate America continues to maintain a strict stance against ex-felons. Some ask, “If businesses close their doors, and private and public entities refuse to allow ex-felons to get on with their lives, what chance do they have to lead productive, crime-free, happy lives?”

Nearly six million people are denied the vote based on criminal convictions. However, some have taken action.  In Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe ordered voting rights restored to more than 200,000 people who have been barred from the polls by felony convictions despite having completed their sentences. Other states had also followed Virginia’s lead. Gov. McAuliffe said, “I want you back in society. I want you feeling good about yourself. I want you voting, getting a job, pay taxes.”

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urged states to eliminate voting bans for those convicted of felonies, saying the subsequent isolation and stigma make it hard for people to re-integrate into society.

Some ask the question, “With over 2 million Americans in jail, do we need so many felonies in the first place?” The believe that stopping the life-ling collateral consequences of a felony conviction is to stop labeling many misdeeds as felonies.

Today, most ex-felons say that their greatest desire upon release is to be given a fair chance to succeed in America — a chance to get a good education, to work, to have their voting rights restored, to learn a skill, to have a family and be happy.

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