Monday, December 26, 2011

The Cautionary Instruction: A youthful conviction, a life time sentence

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
December 23, 2011

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics found a significant increase in the number of young people who report being arrested or detained for a criminal offense. The study, the first since the 1960s to look at the arrest histories of young adults, found that 30.2 percent of 23-year-olds reported having been arrested for an offense other than a minor traffic violation.

That figure is significantly higher than the 22 percent found in a 1965 study that examined the same issue. The increase may be a reflection of the justice system becoming more punitive and more aggressive in its reach during the last half-century, reported the New York Times .

Alfred Blumstein, a professor at the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University, suggested today’s young people face arrest for drugs and domestic violence, which were unlikely offenses to attract police attention in the 1960s. "There's a lot more arresting going on now," he said.

For example the war on drugs in New York City. Low-level marijuana possession offenses are the number one cause of arrest in the city costing taxpayers a whopping $75 million a year. Over 70 percent of those drug arrests are of young people ages16-29.

The pediatrics study concluded that, at a minimum, being arrested for criminal activity signifies an increased risk of unhealthy lifestyle, violence involvement, and violent victimization. The consequences of arresting and convicting youthful offenders go beyond unhealthy lifestyles.

The arrest frenzy, especially among young people has long term implications. I’m not suggesting that teens and young people get a pass on serious crime that harms innocent people. But, whatever happened to taking a kid home and letting a parent dish out some punishment that won’t saddle the “offender” with a criminal record.

The collateral consequences of a criminal conviction are often harsher than the immediate consequences of the punishment. The American Bar Association has identified more than 30,000 laws that limit job options for people with a record.

Sure community service, a fine, even some jail time are real inconveniences for young people. But, the inability to get into college, the loss of a job or the inability to get a job, disqualification from professional licensure, disenfranchisement, deportation and the social stigma of a conviction are lifetime sentences.

In Pennsylvania, the only way to get a youthful conviction off an offender’s record, with few exceptions, is a pardon from the governor. There is no expungement process for nearly all the criminal indiscretion a young person might commit.

The open lewdness charge for urinating behind a car while attending a college football tailgate party will be a stain on a young person’s record for life. When we think of fighting crime is this really what we contemplated?

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