A recent report by William & Mary Assistant Professor Tracy Sohoni called “The Effect of Collateral Consequence Laws on State Rates of Returns to Prisons” examined whether collateral consequence laws effectively prevent crime or simply make it more difficult for past offenders to successfully re-enter society.
Collateral consequence laws are legal sanctions and restrictions imposed upon people because of their criminal record, and Tracy Sohoni believes they are doing more harm than good.
The report states about 70,000 people are released from prisons annually and roughly two-thirds are rearrested within three years of release. Sohoni hypothesizes that this is due to the restrictions brought on by the laws, which can make it difficult for past offenders to get welfare, vote, obtain a drivers license, and find stable housing and employment.
“Ex-convicts need structural opportunities. They need jobs,” Sohoni said. “A lot of offenders come out and want to live a productive life but a lot of them find the opportunities just aren’t there.”
The research did not find statically significant relationships between collateral consequence laws and state returns to prison, but in specific cases where more data was available, Sohoni did link increases in rates of returns to prison to the restriction in question. Such was the case with her evaluation of restricted access to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
The report highlights that collateral consequence laws have often been called “invisible punishments” because they aren’t broadly publicized or well known—something that is beginning to change. In 2012, Congress directed the National Institute of Justice to collect and study collateral consequences in all U.S. jurisdictions, and the ABA Criminal Justice Section was appointed to do the necessary research and analysis to create a new online database.
Sohoni, as reported by the Chicago Bureau, acknowledged that the lack of wide data at this time and other factors make it impossible to draw absolute conclusions on the direct impact these laws have. However, the results can still serve as support for those advocating for “less severe punishments, a rollback of the harsh laws from 20 and 30 years ago and the relaxation of laws that haunt inmates after release, often precluding them from re-entering society in any meaningful way.”