Opening Statement

At Overcriminalization Hearing, Conyers Details Devastating, Discriminatory & Counterproductive Impact of Collateral Consequences

Washington, DC, June 30, 2014

 Statement of Ranking Member John Conyers, Jr.
Hearing on:  Collateral Consequences

Thursday, June 26, 2014 at 9:30 A.M.
2237 Rayburn Building

     Our nation is in the midst of an over-criminalization crisis, the causes of which have been long in the making. Ill-conceived charging and sentencing policies have led to an explosive growth our prison population over the past 40 years.  Even though the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, we lead the world in mass incarceration with more than 25% of the world’s prisoners. Today’s hearing focuses on one of the most serious consequences of our appetite for overincarceration—namely, the devastating collateral consequences that impair an individual’s ability to successfully re-enter society upon his or her release from prison.

     The collateral consequences of imprisonment on a person who has repaid his or her debt to society are pervasive. These adverse effects pertain to nearly every aspect of their lives and, often, for the rest of their lives. Collateral consequences can restrict – the type of employment for which you will be hired; where you are allowed to live; what social benefits you may obtain; whether you qualify for educational loans; the sort of educational and vocational training you can receive; your ability to participate in your child’s life; whether you can exercise your constitutional right to vote; and even if you can obtain a driver’s license.

     The sheer number and extent of these burdens are overwhelming.  There are more than 45,000 state and federal collateral consequences that affect about 65 million Americans with criminal records. The vast majority of these consequences can last a lifetime.  Most states do not allow people to regain their lost civil rights and privileges no matter how many years have passed since their conviction. As a result, someone who was convicted of a minor drug offense decades ago at age 18 may nevertheless be prohibited from obtaining certain types of employment, college loans, or housing even though they have repaid their debt and not committed another crime since. These destructive collateral consequences prevent these individuals from becoming productive citizens and reintegrating successfully into their communities. The research shows that overincarceration coupled with barriers to re-entry are counterproductive and actually increase the risk of recividism.  When we prevent people from living, working, providing for their families in a legitimate manner, what choice do we give them?

     And we must not ignore the lasting effect that collateral consequences have on families and children. In 2007, it was estimated that 1.7 million children under age 18 had a parent in jail.  In fact, African American children have a greater than 25% chance of having one of their parents incarcerated before they turn 18. The incarceration of a parent causes significant and lasting economic and psychological distress on families.  Losing the sole breadwinner raises the risk that a family will experience food, housing, and health insecurity and require public assistance. The loss of a primary caretaker raises the likelihood that the children may end up in foster care. Studies show that having a parent incarcerated decreases the educational and financial opportunities for their children while increasing the likelihood that those children will enter the foster care system,  develop physical and mental health issues, including substance abuse, and eventually enter the criminal justice system themselves.

     The fact that these collateral consequences—just like our investigative, charging, and sentencing policies— disproportionately impact the poor as men, women, and children of color contributes to what Michelle Alexander’s research has repeatedly referred to as ‘The New Jim Crow.’  We have a legal, political, and moral responsibility to right the injustice we have written into our state and federal criminal laws and corresponding civil collateral consequences. Perhaps most importantly, we must identify what actions Congress as well as the states should take to address this crisis.

     The experts and the data demonstrate that overincarceration and excessive and continuing collateral consequences are counterproductive.  It wastes taxpayer money and does not decrease the crime or recidivism rates. We need to implement the commonsense solutions that have demonstrated track records of success in states, such as: alternatives to incarceration, such a pretrial diversion or home confinement; investment in our children by investing in education, health, employment, community programs; rehabilitative educational and vocational training and housing services to make the transition back into the community as seamless as possible.

     In conclusion, I look forward to hearing from our witnesses about how our state and federal system of collateral consequences create barriers and their recommendations actions that we can take, as a Congress and a nation, to ease these burdens now inflicted on over 65 million of our citizens.”