Friday, September 30, 2011

Criminal Law, Prison and the Youth of a Nation

I remember applying for my first job. Wondering if the fast food restaurant was desperate enough to hire someone with no experience. As nightmarish as that experience was can you image the same experience today, in a recession. College graduates are working at Starbucks and McDonalds. It takes a lot of luck to get a job with no experience. Now lets make the same search damn near impossible. Lets add to the mix you have a felony conviction.

It is so cheap and easy with the internet to look up a potential employee's criminal background. The result is that we have created a huge class of Americans who are almost unemployable. I have received more calls seeking to expunge or seal criminal records in the last year than in my entire career. Most of the time those convictions are not eligible to be expunged or sealed (see 20 ILCS 2630/5.2).

Certainly this is a factor to be considered in pleading to anything. That being said there are cases where it makes sense to enter into a plea. This is particularly true given the risk of substantial prison terms. In addition many defendants are convicted at trial. Thus, this is not a problem that can't be resolved by an individual defendant. This is a problem that must be addressed as a nation.

The problem we have is that politicians don't get voted out of office for being perceived as tough on crime. What we fail to see as a nation is the big picture. The object is to keep criminals from impacting our families and friends. Thus, if a young man or woman in their teens or early twenties gets convicted of a crime they are unlikely to find a job throughout their lives. The result will be to do the one job they know best, even if that job is to engage in criminal behavior.

If they are not proficient at committing crimes we can send them to the best schools in the State of Illinois. The charm schools at Stateville, Dwight, Pontiac and Menard are far more successful at teaching criminal behavior than our high schools are at teaching lawful behavior. Maybe the reason is that we spend more money per student on our prisoners than on our students.

People who have drug convictions often have drug addictions. A drug addict who can't find a job is likely to get frustrated. The stress of their situation may result in the desire to take drugs. Since they have no job or money the best way to get money is to steal from you. If we limit welfare to people with criminal convictions than this process will speed up. To make matters worse politicians are reducing funding for drug treatment.

The cycle becomes worse when we destroy the lives of individuals with real potential. Young, first time offenders are often over charged resulting in felony records. In my county retail theft (a class A Misdemeanor) is often charged as a burglary (a class 2 Felony). The State's Attorney has a great deal of discretion as to how they charge an offense. It certainly can't hurt in an election to have a high felony conviction rate.

The police also have discretion as to whether a case should be charged. There are times when a stern warning or a few moments at the police station can provided the needed incentive to straighten up and fly right. Should this happen in every case? Of course not. That is why we need law enforcement that is not only concerned about putting bad people in jail but also concerned about doing the right thing.

It is also important to remember that times have changed. When I was in High School a fight would often be resolved by teachers forcing the students to shake hands. Today the same fight will often by resolved by the students being convicted of aggravated battery. There was a recent change in Illinois to allow 17 year old defendants to be charged with misdemeanors in the juvenile court but the statute does not stop 17 year old defendants from being charged with a felony. There is also at least some scientific studies supporting the idea that impulse control does not fully develop until a person is in their thirties.

The last three presidents of the United State's have all admitted to some form of drug use or alcohol abuse. If they were arrested at the time of their substance use or abuse it is likely they would never have run for office. The result would be an incredible waste of potential.

There is also a very practical side to this argument. As a nation we simply can't afford to imprison so much of our youth. I am not talking about the yearly costs of housing (which is well in excess of $30,000 per year). I am talking about the cost of the state raising children without fathers. I am talking about the costs of prisoners not paying into the system for taxes and social security. I am talking about the destruction of the American dream for a large portion of the youth of our nation.