In criminal justice, signs of a shift toward compassion

New pardons by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo are the latest evidence of a desire among states and the federal government to help a generation of convicts. 

Mike Groll/AP
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, seen here speaking at an economic development awards ceremony in Albany, N.Y., this month, will pardon those convicted of nonviolent crimes when they were 16 or 17, and who have not gotten into trouble for 10 years after their release.

More than 15 years ago, when Vivian Nixon had just been released after serving three years in prison in upstate New York, she began to lose hope that she would ever really be able to reintegrate into society.

There were dozens of job interviews and dozens of times being passed over. Her felony conviction was a “scarlet letter.” Then, one day, someone at a job interview told her she was valuable and promised to get her a job.

“And a month later they did,” Ms. Nixon says. “That was the moment for me. I realized human beings are basically decent, and they want to do the right thing. And that gave me back my hope in humanity.”

On Sunday, ex-convicts facing the same challenges Nixon did got their own reason to hope. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he will grant “conditional pardons” to nearly 10,000 former inmates – pardons for those convicted of nonviolent crimes when they were 16 or 17, and who have not gotten into trouble for 10 years after their release.

On one hand, the move was practical. Nationwide, some 700,000 inmates are being released from jails and prisons each year – part of the some 70 million Americans who have criminal records – making the question of reintegration urgent.

But the move also points to what Nixon said changed her life: compassion.

In discussing his plan, Governor Cuomo said it balances “compassion and caring and protecting society.”

There are signs that that impulse toward compassion is becoming a bigger part of the criminal justice conversation. As the get-tough-on-crime 1980s and ’90s come under increasing scrutiny for taking little thought for the reintegration of a generation of criminals, today’s emerging policies show an attempt to help those now honestly seeking to rebuild lives. 

“Every day, we’re adding to the 70 million Americans with convictions who are going to face these challenges,” says Sam Schaeffer, head of the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) in New York City, which helps those just out of prison find and keep jobs. “Policies like the one the governor enacted, and that the White House has enacted – these are important not only for the number of people this helps just as a matter of pragmatics, but also, symbolically – hopefully getting other governors to act and think along the same lines.”

Mounting costs

During the past year in particular, state governments both red and blue – as well as the Obama administration – have taken steps to address the nation’s burgeoning prison population. Some have adjusted drug laws, some have eased sentencing for nonviolent crimes.

Driving the changes is an emerging financial reality: The costs of maintaining the country’s prison population are a growing burdens on state budgets and taxpayers.

But Governor Cuomo went further in comments Monday. He singled out the problem many of these young offenders have now when applying for jobs. “The stigma of having been incarcerated, the stigma of having committed a crime makes it very, very hard, and that’s not what we need to do,” Cuomo told NY1, a local news channel, on Monday.

“This is establishing a new policy with really a different goal,” he added. “First, this nation needs to take a step back and really, I think, revisit the criminal justice system – the institutionalization of men and women who have committed a crime…. What is the purpose of the institutionalization? Are we trying to protect society? Are we trying to rehabilitate people? We have more people in prisons than any industrialized nation on the globe.”

Nixon is not hoping to receive a pardon for the crime she committed almost two decades ago. But she knows the power that a different view of convicts can have.

Nixon had done well on the application test for a job at a hospital, and her pre-prison job experience meant she met the qualifications for a clerk’s position. The human resources administrator there decided to take a chance on her.

Though Nixon didn’t get a job right away, the administrator assured her they would call when they found one.

When Nixon got the job, “that’s when I decided to enroll in school and build up my capacity to do more with my life.”

A life changed

Today, Nixon is the executive director of College and Community Fellowship, an organization that helps former female inmates get their college degrees. She was one of the first women to go through the program 15 years ago, and they helped her get a degree in nonprofit management – a degree that enabled her to now run the organization that helped her.

“That’s what’s needed,” says Mr. Schaeffer of CEO. “It’s not just moving forward to make things better. I think we also have to go back and show compassion.”

“Yes, we have to first unwind the sentencing practices that have gotten us here in the first place,” he adds. “But then, especially for those with nonviolent drug offenses, and those who committed crimes when they were 16 and 17 years old – to us, this is just common sense.”

The pardon plan announced by the governor will not completely expunge a person’s criminal record. But it will allow former inmates to apply for jobs they were legally barred from holding, including jobs in schools, nursing homes, real estate brokerages, and security companies. They would have to check “Yes” in boxes asking if the applicant had ever been convicted of a crime, but the governor would provide documentation for an official pardon.

New York is one of only two states (along with North Carolina) that automatically treats 16 and 17 year olds as adults in criminal cases. Bills to “raise the age” have been blocked by Senate Republicans.

Many local and state prosecutors supported the governor’s plan. Cyrus Vance, the Manhattan district attorney, said the plan could give former inmates “a chance to go forward in their lives with a clean slate and achieve their maximum potential,” according to The New York Times.

Nixon recognizes that public safety remains a crucial concern. But she believes stories like hers can resonate with many.

“The nature of humanity is that we are flawed,” she says, “and unless those stories are told so that people can relate to them ... people will be driven by their fears.” 

“But when they’re driven by their capacity for compassion,” she adds, “it tends to alleviate some of that fear, because you see people as human beings capable of change.”

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