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Redemption and rewards for felons

Larry Hogan and Maryland's state lawmakers in both houses did the right thing by enacting the Justice Reinvestment Act to reform the state's criminal justice system, but it's not enough. Maryland must do more to integrate released inmates into society as full, productive "returned citizens." The best way to do so is to offer them the opportunity to restore all their rights as citizens: voting, employment, housing, and even gun rights — thereby encouraging their redemption.

According to a Department of Justice study of released inmates in 30 states, most released offenders re-offend and are rearrested and often re-incarcerated. In Maryland, more than 40 percent offenders are re-incarcerated within three years of leaving prison. It is understandable, though, because we make it unnecessarily difficult for released inmates to re-integrate into society successfully. In most places, they receive little to no support or resources — only the clothes on their backs, a few days' worth of prescription medicines, a cashier's check for a few dollars and a bus ticket.

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Almost 10,000 ex-prisoners will return to Baltimore City (more than 1.5 percent of the city's population) this year — joining the 600,000 others returning to communities across the country. Society brands them with a scarlet letter "F" for felon for the rest of their lives.

Our criminal justice system is supposed to do two things: punish and rehabilitate. Sometimes, we excel at punishing offenders by imposing long and often mandatory sentences. But we almost never succeed at rehabilitating them. In fact, we discourage these now-labeled-felons from turning their lives around by putting up obstacles and denying them many of the basic freedoms we take for granted.

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These restrictions or "collateral consequences" linger long after the former convicts have paid for their crimes. States and the federal government have put in place tens of thousands of these limits (some estimates are as high as 40,000 total) on convicted felons as further punishment, and often without clear connection to the convict's criminal history. In the Maryland alone, any person convicted of any felony faces 376 limitations and consequences after they have supposedly served their sentences, ranging from the odd — like the suspension or revocation of a "harness racing driver-trainer license" — to very serious work restrictions, like not being able to return to a previous profession. (Not all prisoners are felons, and not all felonies result in a prison or jail sentence. Some misdemeanors in Maryland carry sentences, and some felony convictions do not result in time behind bars.)

In Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe recently gave back voting rights to 200,000 convicted felons. But governor McAuliffe's decision was wrong. Felons should not be "given" back their rights with no-strings attached. Instead, states should make them earn back their rights through hard work and staying out of trouble.

Maryland should lay out strict, but achievable, criteria that ex-offenders must meet to earn back their rights, including the voting rights granted earlier this year over Governor Hogan's veto. For example, if a felon can gain and maintain legitimate employment; make restitution to the state and victims; pay taxes, liens and debts, including child support in a timely manner; serve the in the community; and most importantly steer clear of criminal acts, convictions and substance abuse, they should be rewarded.

This earned redemption should take the form of the expungement and sealing all of a felon's criminal records (the Maryland's Justice Reinvestment Act allows for only 50 separate offenses). Moreover, Maryland should re-instate all of these "redeemed" citizens' rights. After a set period of time (e.g. five years), these former felons could petition a court for full citizenship restoration with final approval granted by the governor.

Instead of permanently barring felons from pursuing a full and truly free life outside prison, we should encourage them to rejoin society through a post-release redemption-based system.

Sean Kennedy (seandkennedywriter@gmail.com) is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was a U.S. Senate aide, television producer, and a fellow at public policy think tanks including the Maryland Public Policy Institute.

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