Reentry efforts undermined by collateral consequences

roadblockEditor’s note: Earlier this week Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that The Justice Department has christened the week of April 24-30 “National Reentry Week.”  In the announcement, the Attorney General highlighted  “the major steps [taken by the Obama administration] to make our criminal justice system more fair, more efficient, and more effective at reducing recidivism and helping formerly incarcerated individuals contribute to their communities.”  The announcement prompted Art Beeler, a former warden in the federal correctional system and current member of the North Carolina Sentencing Commission, to consider the place that collateral consequences ought to have in our national dialog about reentry, recidivism, and public safety.

As a warden with the Federal Bureau of Prisons for more than twenty years, I know that successful evidence-based reentry programs are essential if we are going to reduce recidivism and increase public safety.  So it was with great interest that I read U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s letter celebrating reentry week.  I applaud the growing focus on reentry programming, which is essential, but I believe that we must acknowledge that we will never achieve the goal of reintegrating those convicted of crimes back into society without fully addressing the problem posed by collateral consequences.  The federal government has already taken some steps a to reevaluate collateral consequences imposed by federal regulations, as the AG notes in her letter, but successful reentry efforts demand a full reevaluation of the intent and effect of collateral consequences at both the federal and state level.

Though I have spent much of my career attempting to help those convicted of crimes transition back into society, I did not fully understand the impact of collateral consequences until late in my career.  Their significance hit home when I was giving a tour of the Federal Medical Center in Butner, North Carolina to participants of a reentry conference at Duke’s School of Law.  Joining us on the tour was a former inmate who had been invited by the Chief Judge for the Western District of North Carolina.  The man had been barbering for almost twenty years since his release and had no subsequent criminal involvement.  But his twenty-plus year-old federal drug conviction rendered him ineligible for the Small Business Administration he needed to open his own barber shop.  Hearing this, I suddenly became aware that collateral consequences were far more commonplace and restrictive than I had previously assumed.

According to the National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction (NICCC), there are over 47,000 collateral consequences imposed by state and federal law, many of which make it unnecessarily difficult for prisoners to succeed on the outside.  Most of these laws and rules were enacted with the well-intentioned goal of protecting public safety, but, by posing obstacles to successful reentry, many of these laws have the opposite effect.  I say this based on forty-two years of experience in correctional management, during which I have seen multitudes of prisoners enter, leave, and, all too-often, return to prison.

Reducing recidivism requires expanding opportunities to those with criminal records, not reducing them.  My correction colleagues and I would often say, anecdotally, that if the sixty percent in the middle of the normal distribution curve of those released had not found a decent job with a living wage in 90-120 days, then they would likely return to criminal behavior and, inevitably, to prison. The reality underlying that assumption has been borne out in numerous of studies.  Most notably, a RAND study empirically demonstrated that inmate education and vocational training reduces recidivism.  The Second Chance Pell Pilot program (which is experimenting with reversing the 1994 policy barring prisoners from receiving Pell grants to fund college tuition) shows that the Administration recognizes this reality.  Critics of such programs wonder why prisoners should get a free ride while law-abiding citizens pay for their own educational costs.  The answer is simple: Because 95% of prisoners will be returning to the community, and we know that those who are better equipped to succeed pose less risk.  Everyone benefits when we remove the unreasonable barriers limiting opportunities for current and former inmates.

But we cannot begin to address the problem posed by collateral consequences until we understand it.  Too many lawyers, legislators, and others involved in the system are unaware of the impact that these civil penalties have on reentry and recidivism, just as I was until fairly recently.   Studies and inventories of collateral consequences, like the NICCC and C-CAT maintained by the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government here in North Carolina, are working to change that.  But reform requires policy-makers to pay attention.  In the past few years I have written several letters to legislators and policy-makers on the subject of collateral consequences.  Rarely have I received more than a generic response thanking me for my comments.  Hopefully, other interested parties are having better luck raising awareness.

Focusing on sentencing reform and reentry programming is important, but they are only two pieces of the puzzle.  By failing to fully review the role of collateral consequences at all levels we are cutting a leg off of a three-legged stool and undercutting our efforts to encourage the success of returning citizens and the safety of our communities.



Art Beeler

Art Beeler is a Clinical Assistant Professor at North Carolina Central University, and a Commissioner with the North Carolina Sentencing Commission. He retired as the Complex Warden at the federal correctional facility in Butner, North Carolina in 2009, after over three decades of service in the federal prison system.

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