It is wisely said that to err is human, and it is widely acknowledged that we all make mistakes and we continue to do so time and again. It is not a bad thing if we learn from those little mistakes and become stronger, and more empowered and confident individuals. But there are some persons that have made mistakes on a sudden impulse, apparently minor mistakes, but with far serious consequences, and some mistakes have ultimately landed people behind bars.
If mistakes have been made and we have learnt our lessons and we have moved on confidently in life as more sober, law abiding and well-adjusted individuals, everything would be fine. The problem comes when mistakes lead to massive collateral damage and totally wrecked lives. Mistakes could see you losing a job or something even worse like getting debarred from pursuing your profession legally. Mistakes could see you losing out on affordable housing and government grants or military service. The criminal record may follow you closely, pushing you off the freeways of life into its twisted and tortured by lanes where it is considerably more painful to pursue a decent standard of living.
Now let us look at a mistake from another angle. Suppose a person committed a fraud in the organization where he was working, and has completed his jail term but the firm permanently bars the employee from working in any of its offices in future, it would be punishment that could be justified. Besides, the ex-employee could still pursue opportunities to begin somewhere else on a clean slate. He is not completely out of the picture.
Supposing another individual happened to be convicted and served sentence for a misdemeanor in his youth and has been clean ever since, but that singular misdemeanor comes in the way of his aspiring for public office, what would you make of that? Would you consider it fair that a person should be permanently barred from pursuing a public office for one indiscretion of his youth? What would be our situation if we were judged similarly for the crimes of your past, which fortunately or otherwise never made it to a court of law?
This begs another valid question, is the judicial system or society at large justified in taking extreme steps and in enforcing maximum collateral damage even in the smallest of crimes? Shouldn’t there be a clear cut demarcation between minor misdemeanors and serious crimes, and shouldn’t the collateral punishment fit the crime?
Acting at the behest of the Attorney General, in the year 2013, the Justice Department launched the Smart on Crime Initiative calling for nationwide amendments of existing laws that create large scale collateral damage. These were laws and decisions that were seen to be creating consequences that jeopardized public interest and safety. Following up on the initiative, the American Bar Association created a massive database of consequences of crimes in more than 40,000 cases, enabling defendants to plead their cases accordingly after becoming aware of the impact that crime will create over the remainder of their lifetime.
Votaries for the initiative affirm unequivocally that the system is not intended to create a one-size-fits-all solution for a wide range of crimes. It’s strength lies in creating awareness in defendants regarding the consequences of their crimes, consequences that they are bound to carry forward indefinitely. It was also felt that the onus was on the lawmakers to judge crimes and leave room for temperance and compassion in deciding the collateral consequences of actions that are rooted in minor misdemeanors or very serious crimes.
The case that grabbed headlines was of a Washington man who served a ten day sentence for assault classified as a misdemeanor but who turned a new leaf and spent a considerable span of time without creating further criminal records. The criminal record surfaced in an unfortunate way later on in life. The HUD property owner whom he had applied for affordable housing denied his application citing his assault record. Even when the HUD recommended that an element of discretion be exercised, the property owner refused saying he was well within his rights to refuse a person who had an assault charge on record. As a consequence, the man spent over a year on the streets homeless till another property owner exercised his discretion to waive the assault charge after duly investigating the episode and satisfying himself of the circumstances of the applicant. The person finally found affordable housing, but not without suffering a year in the proverbial wilderness of society.
The Justice Department became proactive in asking law makers and decision makers to adopt a discretionary approach after duly examining the details of the crime, the background of the individual at the material time, and the person’s attitude, actions and behavior after the crime till the moment of denial of benefits, before arriving at a decision. It was felt that a reasoned and compassionate view would go a long way in rehabilitating persons that continued to be at the receiving end of society’s ire many years after committing minor misdemeanors.