Unforgiven: The price of a felony for Black males in America

There is a dark cloud hanging over the experience of many Black males in the US in the form of a felony conviction. These Black males are drenched in the rain of disenfranchisement, underemployment, negative stereotypes, and un-forgiveness. Additionally, Black males who have repaid what was deemed owed of them through sentencing, restitution, and probation are regulated only to being the bringers of darkness and cold rain. This is an all too common experience for Black males who do not have the ability to access redemption under societal gaze. According to a study by Shannon and colleagues (2017), 8% of all adults in the US have a felony conviction. This number rises to 33% for Black adult males. Furthermore, one half of Black males are at risk of arrest at least once by the age of 23 (Brame et al., 2014). These studies suggest an increasing vulnerability for criminal justice involvement by young Black male adults within a society determined to criminalize the Black male body.   

It has been widely indicated that Black males disproportionate interaction with the criminal justice system is influenced by the negative narratives associated with the Black male body such as being dangerous, deviant, and dumb. However, these negative messages continue to follow Black males once their period of incarceration has ended and they begin their re-entry back into society. Specifically, two central messages are cynicism concerning the rehabilitative capacity of Black males and the belief that Black males are not worthy of redemptive status. There have been several studies to suggest that the imposition of these messages on the Black male experience as well as the internalization of these messages by the Black male himself can have significant negative physical and mental health consequences (Dill et al., 2015).

The criminal justice system disproportionately affects Black males from arrest to reentry. Additionally, due to society’s negative perception of their rehabilitative capacity and access to redemption, Black males experience a perpetual “double punishment” where they receive a “life” sentence of disenfranchisement, underemployment, negative stereotypes and un-forgiveness upon reentry. We must do better by those that have earned the right to a second chance by serving their time, paying restitution, and navigating the system of probation. Specifically we can: (1) reduce barriers to accessing appropriate physical and mental health treatment, (2) increase access to affordable, safe, and consistent housing, (3) provide training for translatable job skills, (4) provide training and financial support for worthwhile entrepreneurial efforts, (5) facilitate access to social support systems, (6) eradicate barriers for individuals with felonies to exercise their voice in the political process, and (7) remove the life sentence of stigma imposed upon individuals at reentry.       

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