Report from Governmental Affairs

The ABA works to help formerly incarcerated people reenter society

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Every year, more than 640,000 people are released from state and federal prisons in the United States. But they often emerge with few skills, limited job prospects and inadequate assistance and resources to successfully reenter their communities. More than 70 million Americans have a criminal record. They face legal and regulatory barriers that prevent them from fully engaging with society.

Studies show that placement in high-quality, steady jobs reduces recidivism, yet nearly 75% of formerly incarcerated people still don’t have a job a year after being released. Without intervention, many formerly incarcerated individuals end up returning to prison.

For those incarcerated, the ABA supports appropriate treatment consistent with the Eighth Amendment that offers resources and opportunities shown to reduce recidivism and increase public safety. Similarly, the ABA supports adequate resources for programs at the national, state and local levels that help individuals leaving incarceration make successful transitions back into society.

For example, the ABA has successfully lobbied to lift a ban on need-based educational grants for those incarcerated; lobbied for the enactment of the Fair Chance to Compete for Jobs Act to help ensure that federal job candidates are evaluated on their merits before a criminal background check is conducted; and lobbied for the continuation of the Second Chance Act of 2007. The Second Chance Act is a $125 million Department of Justice grant program to support reentry initiatives at the state and local levels.

These and other strategies curb recidivism by ensuring incarcerated people have access to programs and education they need to make successful transitions into their communities. And the push continues: This year, the ABA included successful reentry as a legislative priority for the 118th Congress.

To guide law and policymakers in making changes to the criminal justice system, the ABA has promulgated comprehensive standards applicable to each stage of the process, including standards for rehabilitation and reintegration. These standards include recommendations that correctional authorities prepare people about to be released by providing assistance with housing, employment, debt counseling and reconnecting with family.

But programs are often not enough. Ironically, the fact that someone has been convicted of a crime can disqualify the individual from getting the help they need in order to not re-offend. So the ABA also has been active in the effort to reduce “collateral consequences” of criminal convictions. Sometimes called sanctions, these are legal penalties that take away rights, block access to programs or services or impose other disadvantages that punish but are not part of a person’s sentence. This could include revoking a driver’s license, blocking access to human services programs or even removing the right to vote.

To better understand the barriers collateral consequences present, in 2012 the ABA began work on the first national inventory of the 44,000 potential consequences of criminal convictions under a grant from the Department of Justice. The ABA has also published ABA Standards for Criminal Justice: Collateral Sanctions and Discretionary Disqualification of Convicted Persons. These standards identify how collateral sanctions can play an important role in achieving legitimate objectives. However, when they bear no relation to an underlying offense, collateral sanctions can undermine both an individual’s reintegration into society and public confidence in the justice system.

The ABA supports efforts by members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to reduce or remove collateral consequences at the federal, state and local levels. For example, the ABA backed proposals to automate the sealing of some criminal and juvenile records, such as in the First Step Implementation Act of 2021. The ABA also fought for the Democracy Restoration Act, which would have restored a person’s right to vote in federal elections once their sentence had been satisfied. Despite bipartisan support for many of these proposals in the last Congress, none were enacted. But there may be reason for hope.

The 118th Congress already shows promise for progress. Within the first two months of this Congress, several dozen lawmakers joined the bipartisan Second Chance Task Forceā€”a new congressional caucus focused on moving legislation to help those leaving incarceration reenter society and transition into meaningful employment.

This positive legislative development follows the Biden administration’s strategy announced last year to improve second chance opportunities for people who have served their sentences. The ABA welcomes these developments and stands ready to advocate for more meaningful policy changes to help formerly incarcerated people reenter society.

Follow us @ABAGrassroots to track significant legislative developments on reentry and other issues as they happen.

This story was originally published in the June-July 2023 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Sentence Served: The ABA works to help formerly incarcerated people reenter society.”

This report is written by the ABA Governmental Affairs Office and discusses advocacy efforts by the ABA relating to issues being addressed by Congress and the executive branch of the U.S. government.

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