News & Politics

A Deeper Look into the Life and Tragic Police Murder of Alton Sterling Lays Bare the Injustice of Our Legal System

Sterling spent many years of his life entangled in the criminal legal system.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

On May 2, the Department of Justice declined to level federal charges against the two police officers involved in the murder of Alton Sterling. However, Sterling's life was devalued by the criminal legal system long before his death. He was a victim of the collateral consequences of a criminal record.

Collateral consequences are the often unforeseen restrictions that bar those with criminal records from participating in aspects of normal life. They come from a number of different sources, an unfathomable tangle of 44,000 state statutes, federal statutes, agency-specific rules and even third-party regulations whose influence stretches across the nation. These collateral consequences can apply for life and, in the absence of any feasible means of redress, often do.

Like far too many other poor African-American men, Sterling spent many years of his life entangled in the criminal legal system. Indeed, as The Washington Post reported, Sterling's 46-page arrest record, complete with charges ranging to the benign (such as failure to wear a seat belt) to the extreme (like burglary), speaks to a life checkered with stints in jail. Each new charge came with a new fine, fee or requirement at huge financial costs.

Sterling's criminal record contributed to the economic insecurity that troubled his adult life, and ultimately led him into the situation that ended his life.

Sterling struggled to secure gainful employment for years, eventually taking up the sale of CDs (in front of the convenience store where he was murdered) to provide himself with some level of income. The job search for those with criminal records is often paved with adversity. Returning citizens are banned from simple consideration for many jobs that require licenses and certifications based on negative assumptions surrounding their trustworthiness and work ethic. A study conducted by the National Institute of Justice illustrated this stigma, reporting that a mere arrest was associated with decreased employment prospects more so than a long period of unemployment or possession of a GED in place of a high-school degree.

One former prisoner captured the desperation of this struggle, lamenting, "It's easier to get a gun and drugs than a job."

Most formerly incarcerated people have difficulty finding employment. Nearly 60 percent of returning citizens are unemployed a year after their release from prison, with ripple effects for their dependent families and their own earning potential down the line.

The prospects of locating secure housing can also prove grim for those with criminal records. Just months before he was murdered, Sterling had the good fortune to move into the Living Waters Outreach Ministry Drop-In Center, a transitional housing facility characterized by its clientele of predominantly homeless African-American men with criminal records.

Had Sterling turned to federal housing programs, he might not have had the same degree of luck: The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program and public housing are administered by local public housing authorities that can punish tenants for any type of so-called "criminal activity," arbitrarily and often ruthlessly, denying housing or administering eviction notices. Indeed, a formerly incarcerated person hoping to return to his or her family and begin anew can unintentionally become a liability that sends their entire family into the streets.

Private housing presents its own unique set of challenges. Landlords are eager to weed out tenants with criminal records, often utilizing background checks and credit checks out of fear that successful tenancy is negatively correlated to the possession of a criminal record. In reality, the opposite is true: Steady housing actually reduces the likelihood of recidivism, thus increasing the likelihood of successful tenancy.

It is no surprise Sterling still found it difficult to support himself and his children. The constant struggle to keep up with the demand for food, toiletries or a car to get to work often encourages those with criminal records to alternative means of income. Many hope to access the public benefits ensconced within Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), among others, only to be disappointed. In many states, those convicted of drug felonies are barred from accessing these benefits, often for life. Although federal law permits states to discount the ban, the majority have kept it intact for TANF, SNAP or both to the detriment of returning citizens desperate for any source of support. In one study of formerly incarcerated people returning to society in Texas, California and Connecticut, participants experienced food insecurity similar to that of much poorer countries. 

The scope and severity of collateral consequences cannot be understated: More than 40 percent of those incarcerated in state prisons returned to prison within three years, unable to satisfy housing, income and other critical needs necessary for successful reintegration into society. Collateral consequences ensure that the grip of mass incarceration tightens and impacts people far beyond the jail cell.

Sterling's life -- his poverty, housing instability and extrajudicial murder -- was just one example of the endurance of this grip. But federal lawmakers can do something to loosen it.

Before the 2016 election season was completely underway, bipartisan interest emerged with a particular eye towards alleviating the barriers to reentry for ex-prisoners. Senators Cory Booker and Rand Paul jointly introduced the REDEEM Act in 2014, which would allow those charged with low-level drug offenses to access certain public benefits. The bill, among others aimed at advancing criminal legal reform like the Sentencing Reforms and Correction Act introduced in 2015, stalled.

A new year could mean the chance to take a fresh look at reform. Congress has a unique opportunity to help the tens of millions of Americans with criminal records for whom collateral consequences are a daily burden that forces them to live on the brink of joblessness, homelessness, and poverty. Federal legislation to "ban the box," thus removing the stigmas of criminal record from a job application, would be particularly powerful. Congressional action has been made all the more pressing by the May 10 decision of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has long been an opponent of sentencing reform and federal oversight of police misconduct, to direct federal prosecutors to level the harshest charges and sentences possible for low-level drug offenses. Such a decision not only prolongs the problem of mass incarceration in general, but broadens the reach and lifespan of collateral consequences as a specific civil rights challenge as well.

Our federal representatives should follow the example of leaders across the country, from Tennessee to Iowa to California, who are pursuing innovative ideas to combat the injustice in the criminal legal system.

The ball, and the lives of thousands of returning citizens like Sterling, is in their court.

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Ebony Slaughter-Johnson is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in AlterNet, U.S. News and World Report, Equal Voice News, and Common Dreams.