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Ex-offenders: America’s Untouchables



While I was researching another topic, I came across this eye opener. Ex–offenders are the untouchables of our American society. You have completed your sentence, but you are forever branded a felon. This American caste is not only defined by the loss of the right to vote and the right to serve on a jury, but this caste is chained to a lower economic status– unemployable. Kathleen Murray in her blog, “Out and Employed,” describes the many obstacles facing the millions of Americans who are part of this caste. The idea for this thought provoking blog arose while listening to a radio interview with Michelle Alexander.

Out and Employed

Michelle Alexander, a legal scholar, attorney and former Supreme Court clerk.  She was being interviewed on NPR’s Tell Me More program about her new book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

What jumped out at me was her reference to caste.  We here in America like to think of ourselves as living in the land of equal opportunity, I know.  But this particular term  is one that’s come up a lot in my discussions about the offenders and the criminal justice system, lately.  An offender turned reentry advocate I talked to a while back put it even more bluntly:

“I think we as humans need an untouchable class.  Before it was race that held people down, now it’s that your branded and ostracized because you’re an ex-offender.”

Alexander argues that blacks are still disproportionately represented in this new lower caste, hence the link  to notorious Jim Crow laws.  She backs up her assertions with plenty of statistics, including:

  • The War on Drugs, which caused the prison explosion has been primarily waged in poor neighborhoods of color. Yes, drugs are there, she says, but they’re also in white suburban neighborhoods, as well.  But despite this, in some states 80 to 90 percent of drug offenders sent to prison are African Americans.
  • If we were to go back to the rates of incarceration we had in the 1970s, we would have to release four out of five people who are in prison today.

I would agree with Alexander to a point.  Certainly more African Americans are affected by the criminal justice system.  But the caste system she’s referring to also impacts a substantial number of low income, under-educated whites.  The groups I teach in Northern Virginia have never had an African American majority.  But it’s a good bet that the most of these students, whatever their race, are usually from a lower rung on the class ladder, which guarantees them poorer legal representation and less access to some of the “breaks” often afforded higher class lawbreakers.

That said, I think Alexander and the people I’ve spoken to are right when they say that felons are the new untouchables.  As Alexander points out, offenders are:

“…trapped in a permanent second class status in which you may be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits. All the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind…..are suddenly legal again once you’ve been branded a felon.”

Note:  Alexander and others who advocate for criminal justice reform aren’t saying that those who break the law don’t deserve to be punished.  But it’s a question of scale.  Right now having a criminal record punishes all offenders in perpetuity, often regardless of the circumstances of the individual crime.   Employers who routinely screen out anyone with a record, for example, effectively treat a felony as a scarlet letter.

Alexander thinks nothing short of a social movement will change this situation.  In ex-offender forums I often hear people talking about getting groups together and going to Washington, D.C., but so far there’s been no significant organized action.

How about you?  Do you think offenders are the new lower caste?  If so, what do you think it will take to change this?

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Shelly Stow

Basically agree; there is one point that wants correcting simply for accuracy’s sake. In many states, once a sentence is served, even for a sexual offense, voting rights are restored. Each state is different. I know there are one or two that provide the venue for voting while in prison, and on the other end of the spectrum, a few do not allow it for anyone with a criminal record, but for most, voting is restored once the sentence is completed. I don’t know about jury service; still have research to do on that.

Javan Higgins

One of the things that is incredible about this observation is that it is just being made. Ask any formerly incarcerated person and you will find a story or two about not being able to find employment, not to mention meaningful employment in most communities.The discussion has to shift to why, and whats to be done about it. Does the population need to organise, boycott, or litigate. Does there need to be an executive order restoring the vote in federal elections, or does the public need to scream about ineffective correctional programming and the waste of taxpayer dollars? The problem… Read more »


Yes…agreed on all points…Plus…I applied for help from S.S.I. to care for my wife and her mental illness after she came home…they say I make too much money on my retirement and turned us down…said I should be happy to care for her…well, yes I am…but what happened to all that money I paid into the system for years so other people could get help?

William Jennings

I agree with your assertions. I believe the caste system is alive and well and has become the new way to hold back a huge segment of the population. One area of particular concern to me are statutes which prohibit any person with a criminal conviction from participating as a candidate in an election. This trend of statutes prohibiting ex-offenders from elections is a good indicator of the breadth of convictions in the U.S. If large sections of the population were not ex-offenders then there would be no need for such statutes. If that same population was not rising to… Read more »


[…] felons. The collateral damage from a felony conviction was always extensive. Ex-offenders are the Untouchables of American society. untouchables of our American society. You have completed your prison sentence, […]

Angela Fravel

I am a 33 yr old married woman with three daughters, I am also an “ex-offender”, and currently serving out my last 5 months on Adult probation..I had worked in nursing as a Certified Nursing Assistant for 13 yrs as we’ll as during those 13 yrs completed an education in Information Technology as well as Forensic Science Crime Scene Investigations.. Charged on January 14, 2011 and releases into work release, February 28, 2012..and since I had lost my employment June 25, 2013 due to company downsize I have not been successful at finding employment that will hire me..not even an… Read more »


[…] I looked at ads for house rentals and some ads indicated no smokers, no pet owners, and no felons. Ex-offenders are now the untouchables of American society. Our American untouchables, felons, not only have difficulty obtaining safe housing, but face […]


[…] I looked at ads for house rentals and some ads indicated no smokers, no pet owners, and no felons. Ex-offenders are now the untouchables of American society. Our American untouchables, felons, not only have difficulty obtaining safe housing, but face […]