Perpetual punishment: The collateral consequences of a criminal record

Feb 1, 2018

Recently, a few upstate news outlets released stories about a crime Ithaca College President Shirley Collado pleaded no contest to almost 20 years ago. That got us thinking, what’s the impact on individuals and society when someone’s criminal record is made public after they’ve completed their sentence?

The Emotional Toll

"It's exhausting," said Marlon Peterson. "That's the first thing, that's how I feel. It's exhausting that you have to constantly explain the past."

He is a writer and host of the podcast, Decarcerate. He also has criminal record. After he got out, he studied at NYU, where, he feels, other people expected him to explain his incarceration even though he hadn’t shared that fact with them.

"On surface we may say we’re forgiving, but most folks aren’t forgiving and they always feel like they deserve an explanation for why your past occurred."

But, Peterson says that making someone’s record public doesn’t just continue to punish people who have completed their sentence.

"I think also people don’t think about that’s re-traumatizing to the folks that experienced it," he's said, "who’ve gone through it, where they have to relive that moment again because now they have to go back and explain it all over again –‘this is what happened, this is why it happened.'"

It is exhausting. That is the first thing, that is how I feel. It is exhausting that you have to constantly explain the past.

Permanent Punishment

The Advocacy Center in Tompkins County helps victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence. Heather Campbell is the director there and she agrees with Peterson. Victims and perpetrators need to control their own story in order to rebuild their lives.

"Sometimes those details are disclosed by a third party, or discovered by the media as part of court records checks and that can have a different impact for victims, who may really feel like the details of their life, the details about their victimization, the control over that information is being taken from them once again."

"We have a culture now that permanently punishes people who have criminal records and produces enormous structural and systemic consequences in their lives for that," said Paula Ioanide is an Associate Professor of Comparative Race and Ethnicity Studies in the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity at Ithaca College. She studies the effects of mass incarceration on communities and individuals.

"So that the notion of punishment, as a narrow definition of 'somebody committed a crime, they served their time and now it’s over.' I would say that doesn’t exist, if it ever existed. But it certainly doesn’t exist in the current context when public records of criminality are increasingly asked for by institutions and are increasingly easy to find because of the digital age."

Credit New York State

Defining Justice

Furthermore, she says, part of the problem is how society encourages victims to define “justice”.

"If a victim has narrowed their understanding of justice to ‘this person needs to be removed and put away and that is the way I understand justice or my own safety. Then they are very likely to be disappointed because that person will, at some point, come back and leave prison or jail."

She’s not alone in thinking there are bigger issues to consider. JoAnne Page is the President of The Fortune Society, which helps people returning from incarceration get the resources they need to be successful in their lives.

"We see people at Fortune all the time who’ve been out and who’ve been working. And then when they’re going for a promotion or going for a new job their old record comes up and it hurts their ability to move ahead in their careers in ways that they’ve earned. So, there’s a huge unfairness in this.

"And what’s interesting in this for me is that that cuts against all major religions – the idea that people are able to be redeemed, that people are able to change their lives, you know, that, who among us has a right to cast that first stone. And we keep casting it over and over again. There’s a huge unfairness in doing that."

In New York state, more than 250,000 people are incarcerated, on probation or on parole. That's more than the entire population of Broome County. Everyone WSKG spoke to for this story agrees the solutions to mass incarceration will require more than new laws and programs to help people who are victims and the formerly incarcerated rebuild their lives.