What is the Purpose of the Felony Conviction?

I often asked myself this question, “What is the purpose of a felony conviction?” I believe that if you asked this question to any random citizen, the responses would be similar. The common theme would be public safety. And that could not be farther from the truth.

What is a felony? Felony: n. 1) a crime sufficiently serious to be punishable by death or a term in state or federal prison, as distinguished from a misdemeanor which is only punishable by confinement to county or local jail and/or a fine. 2) a crime carrying a minimum term of one year or more in state prison, since a year or less can be served in county jail. However, a sentence upon conviction for a felony may sometimes be less than one year at the discretion of the judge and within limits set by statute.

That definition is very straight forward. A felony is a serious crime. It should carry with its commission a remedy that benefits the common good. Depending on the nature of the case and at the discretion of the judge, the sentence should allow for the public to become safer through the referral of the individual to the Department of Correction (DOC). It is the job of the DOC to take the necessary steps to correct the behavior of the individual that led to the commission of the felony offense.

The community should have warranted faith that the DOC will do it due diligence to ensure that the public is safer because of the care and treatment of the individual that it, the DOC, was charged with serving. And, I believe, the community has faith that this is occurring. Is that faith reasonable?

The felony conviction should be seen as a signal that behavior modification is needed. The conviction, then, serves as a tool that allows the government to impose mandatory corrective actions, through several means, including imprisonment. And, if that were the end of the story, there would be no need for me to continue writing. Yet, I am still writing.

As a person that has a felony conviction, my personal experiences have led me to the assertion that public safety is not the primary reason for labeling someone as a convicted felon. During my time in contact with the criminal justice system, there was no time when my behavior was being intentionally modified. I was only imprisoned. The argument can be made that the imprisonment did make the community safer, but my sentence had an expiration date. Using that rationale, the community’s safety was compromised upon my release from prison.

I submit to you that the primary reason for imposing a felony conviction on an individual is to label them in order to remove rights- rights that this great nation was founded on. The felony conviction serves a modern day scarlet letter, a tool used to identify and to categorize men and women in order to subject them to a system of collateral consequences that have nothing to do with public safety.

Let’s consider the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. It reads: “Section 1.

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The 13th Amendment has been referred to as the amendment that ended slavery. If you read it, you will see that that is not completely true. This amendment allows for slavery or involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime, i.e. felony conviction. The felony conviction gives jurisdictions the power to create a new class of slaves that are used as cheap labor.

Secondly, the felony conviction subjects individuals to a myriad of collateral consequences that, in no way, make our communities safer. For example, a felony conviction, in many jurisdictions, strips citizens of several rights such as voting, housing, education and employment, the same rights that were fought for by African Americans during the American Civil Rights movement. These collateral consequences drastically reduce a citizen’s ability to productively contribute to society, and they are often left to resort to crime in an effort to survive, thus placing them right back in the criminal justice system.

Furthermore, the federal government has revised its EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) guidelines for hiring in an effort to remove blanket policies of discrimination against people with felony convictions. This is important because these policies have a disparate impact- a theory of liability that prohibits an employer from using a facially neutral employment practice that has an unjustified adverse impact on members of a protected class- on minorities. This evidence lends itself to the notion that felony convictions are being used to discriminate against minorities by keeping them out of the workforce and in a state of dependency on the government or criminal activity. Michelle Alexander refers to it as “The New Jim Crow”.

The felony conviction has become a tool that is widely used to create a class of people that is denied basic freedoms that our United States Constitution guaranteed all citizens. The felony conviction has become a weapon of mass destruction that is destroying communities of color by destroying family stability by saddling men and women with a plethora of collateral consequences that make living the American Dream, or striving for some semblance of it, virtually impossible. The conviction has created a population of hopeless individuals that see no need to attempt to contribute to society in a positive manner.

I, in no way, condone crime. I believe that crime should have a legal obligation that the person that commits it should satisfy. With that being said, it is completely unfair and morally wrong to continue this system of oppression that does not serve the general welfare of our great nation! The preamble of the Constitution clearly states that the mission of America is to allow all citizens the ability to “…form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…” A person that is convicted of a felony serves a life sentence that will not allow to them to share in this great mission. Let’s restructure our criminal justice system and create a system of justice rather than a weapon, wielded too freely, of oppression.