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Against the Box

Hundreds of thousands have gathered in protest of the brutality they say the police have inflicted on minorities, and millions of people have watched tragedy after tragedy unfold. It’s a topic everyone seems to have an opinion about.

However, the police force does more than embody the notion of being the brutal arbitrator of a racist justice system. They arrest people, and by doing so, they change the life of every single person that gets processed into our legal system.

For many of us, when we fill out an application, there is a section that asks a seemingly simple and understandable question. “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” Most check no and move on, but for millions of people in the U.S. this isn’t the case for them the odds of truly starting over diminish the moment they’re released from prison.

It does seem to make sense though. Most people would prefer to know if they’re working with a recently released Ted Bundy. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, out of the 2.3 million people in prison last year, roughly 15,300 are in prison or jail because of a violent crime, which can range from homicide to simple assault. The idea that people who have been in jail or prison are violent maniacs who cannot be trusted is a tired cliché.

If we put people in prison because they broke the law and they need to be punished, then why does the punishment extend to life after prison? The price someone pays for breaking the law can be years, sometimes decades, of his or her life in society. Former prisoners pay that price, yet we tell them they are not welcome back.

Those who have made a mistake have broken the law, but it is not just the individual who is punished.  The kids of those individuals are also punished. Someone who was locked up and can’t find a job still has to feed their children and pay the bills to keep a roof over their head.

They will use desperate measures to make sure there is enough food on the table. You don’t need to pass a background check to sell drugs and you don’t need to check mark a box to steal. Those “jobs” are always available and the money is there.

At this point, it becomes easier to go back to prison than it does to get a stable job and begin to contribute toward society. The quality of life declines for both the children and the person who supposedly has paid his or her debt to society. This can potentially impact everything from basic nutrition to education. Even their grandchildren’s future is at risk because once the cycle of poverty starts it can be difficult to stop.

It doesn’t take a financial guru to figure out that the more we put people into prison and the more we keep them out of the workforce, the weaker our economy is going to become. The weaker our economy, the fewer jobs are going to be available; the fewer jobs that are available, the more people will turn to other means to make ends meet.

Our justice system is a vicious cycle that actively dissuades rehabilitation. To call it a “justice” system is almost oxymoronic at this point. Justice for whom? Is it justice for someone who was caught smoking pot to miss out on an education because they are no longer eligible for financial aid? Is it justice to no longer have a say in our political system because you are a felon who can’t vote? Is it justice to pay a price, and then continue to pay it for the rest of your life? If you can’t vote, can’t get an education, can’t get a job, then are you even a citizen of this country? A country that brags about opportunity, and the so-called government of the people, by the people and for the people?

Of course, all of this assumes that when someone is arrested it is because they are guilty. This all assumes that those who did the time did the crime. That’s a heavy assumption to make. Not to mention that minorities are heavily over-represented in our prison system and in poverty levels. So while all of this has a lasting effect on millions of people of all races, it has a devastating impact on minorities.

I was at work one day, talking with my manager as he looked over applications. He passed over one with that checkmark on the “yes” box, chuckled and said “Uhh no,” and went on to the next one. I wondered if that individual was desperate for a job? Did they have a child they were trying to feed and clothe? Was this going to be the final job they apply for before doing something drastic to make ends meet?

We all get a second chance. When you didn’t get caught smoking pot, when you weren’t pulled over the night you blacked out and somehow drove home, when you got in a fight and nobody called the cops. The one’s who weren’t so lucky don’t get that chance. That has got to change. Either we treat the formally incarcerated as human beings who deserve a second chance or we create a society that robs people of the ability to make a mistake.

Christian Vasquez may be reached at [email protected].

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