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Beyond the scarlet letter: Ending discrimination against former felons in Massachusetts

Ronald Beaty

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel, “The Scarlet Letter,” Hester Prynne is branded with a scarlet “A” for her transgressions, forever marking her as an outcast. Today, in Massachusetts, a similar form of public shaming persists, hidden in plain sight. The label of “convicted felon” attaches a modern scarlet letter, perpetuating discrimination and stigma long after sentences are served.

In the Bay State, more than 340,000 individuals — 6.4% of the adult population — carry this label. It’s a designation that not only reflects a past mistake, but also dictates their future. The consequences are far-reaching, affecting employment, housing, education and even family dynamics. This scarlet letter of felony convicts individuals to a life of second-class citizenship, where rehabilitation is stifled by systemic barriers. It’s a form of discrimination, plain and simple.

The effects are palpable. A study by the National Institute of Justice found that 60% of ex-offenders remain unemployed one year after release. In Massachusetts, the jobless rate for formerly incarcerated individuals is a staggering 27.1%, compared to 3.5% for the general population. This cycle of unemployment and poverty perpetuates recidivism, with 46.9% of Massachusetts inmates reoffending within three years.

Moreover, housing and education opportunities are also limited by the felony label. Public housing agencies and landlords often deny tenancy based on criminal records, leaving many with limited options. In education, a felony conviction can lead to ineligibility for financial aid and scholarships, hindering the pursuit of higher education and better job prospects.

The stigma extends beyond the individual, affecting families and communities. Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to experience emotional trauma, academic struggles and eventual involvement in the criminal justice system themselves.

To break this cycle, Massachusetts must adopt a more rehabilitative approach. Decriminalization, expungement reform and “ban the box” legislation are crucial steps towards reducing recidivism and promoting reintegration.

We can learn from states like California, which has implemented innovative reforms. Their Proposition 47, passed in 2014, reduced non-violent felony convictions to misdemeanors, affecting nearly 5,000 inmates. This move not only alleviated prison overcrowding but also saved taxpayers millions.

Massachusetts can follow suit by adopting similar measures. Our state should:

Expand expungement eligibility to include more offenses.

Implement “ban the box” legislation in public and private hiring.

Increase funding for reentry programs and job training initiatives.

Provide incentives for landlords and employers willing to give second chances.

Furthermore, addressing systemic racism within the criminal justice system is crucial. African Americans in Massachusetts are disproportionately represented on the criminal justice system, comprising 27% of the prison population, despite making up only 7% of the state’s population. This disparity perpetuates cycles of poverty and violence, devastating communities of color.

By taking these steps, we can begin to dismantle the scarlet letter of felony and foster a culture of rehabilitation. It’s time to recognize that individuals with felony convictions are more than their mistakes — they are our neighbors, colleagues and fellow citizens deserving of a second chance.

Let’s work towards a Massachusetts where the label of “convicted felon” no longer perpetuates discrimination and stigma, but instead serves as a testament to resilience and redemption.

Additionally, we must address the root causes of crime, such as poverty and lack of education. Investing in community programs and social services can help prevent criminal behavior before it occurs. This proactive approach can reduce the number of people entering the criminal justice system, alleviating the burden on taxpayers and law enforcement.

In conclusion, the scarlet letter of the convicted felon term is a modern-day symbol of shame and discrimination. By adopting a more rehabilitative approach and addressing systemic issues, we can break the cycle of recidivism and foster a more just society. Let us work together to create a Massachusetts where second chances are a reality, not a distant dream.

Ronald R. Beaty Jr., is  a political activist and former member of the Barnstable County Board of Regional Commissioners.

convicted felon, discrimination, opinion