Formerly incarcerated people face a web of laws that Marlon Chamberlain describes as "permanent punishments." During this episode, he discusses his campaign to eliminate them.
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This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Welcome to Justice Today, the official podcast of Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs, or OJP, where we shine a light on cutting edge research and practices and offer an in-depth look at what we're doing to meet the biggest public safety challenges of our time. Join us as we explore how funding, science and technology help us achieve strong communities.
I'm your host, Karen Friedman. I'm the Director of Criminal Justice Innovation, Development and Engagement at OJP's Bureau of Justice Assistance, otherwise known as BJA.
When Marlon Chamberlain left federal prison more than 10 years ago, he thought he had paid his debt to society. But today, after 10 years as a law-abiding and successful husband, father, and political advocate, he says he still is paying interest on that debt.
Shortly after he reentered society, Chamberlain says he was shocked to find that there were many aspects of his daily life he still did not control. He encountered hundreds of laws that impose hundreds of restrictions on the activities of formerly incarcerated individuals. Even now, because of these laws, there are jobs that Chamberlain cannot hold, things he cannot do, and even places he cannot go.
Many of these laws, he says, are arbitrary and deeply unfair. And because they never go away, they amount to a kind of perpetual interest charge that continues long after a person's debt should have been paid in full.
Chamberlain believes this system not only exploits formerly incarcerated people but causes unintended consequences that put the general public at risk. And as campaign manager for an Illinois-based organization called Fully Free, he is working to wipe these laws off the books.
Marlon Chamberlain is here with us today to discuss his life and his cause. Marlon, thank you so much for joining me on Justice Today. It's so great to have you here.
MARLON CHAMBERLAIN: Thank you for the invitation. It's nice to be able to have this conversation about such an important issue.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: It really is. The minute I heard you speak when I was in Chicago, I'm like, I need to have this guy on my podcast. I found you so engaging and so on point. So, I'm really excited to have this conversation.
MARLON CHAMBERLAIN: Same here.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: As listeners to this podcast know, I'm a former judge. And in the criminal justice system we often use the phrase “collateral consequences” to describe the many legal restrictions that formerly incarcerated people have to navigate.
But you and your organization came up with a very different term. When I heard it for the first time, I was, like, mind blown. You called them “permanent punishment” laws. I'd love for you to explain what you mean by that.
MARLON CHAMBERLAIN: The reason we decided to call them permanent punishments and not collateral consequences is because “collateral” implies that these laws were simply an afterthought or even accidental. In fact, we know that they were intentionally drafted to target people with records. And as a result of this, we've seen a national problem with national consequences. So, we decided to call them what they are – lifetime sentences, which means you're permanently punished.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: That was like a mic drop moment for me when you said it. I was the expungement judge in Baltimore. Individuals would come in front of me and some of them were even further out from their incarceration than you – 30, 40, 50 years – and doing great things in the community. But there were still hurdles that they couldn't get over because of their convictions.
If I couldn't expunge those convictions – and there are very limited ways to expunge convictions – they were really saddled and bogged down with these side effects of their original conviction. So, it was very frustrating to see individuals and hear their disbelief that after 30, 40, 50 years of doing the right thing, they were still having to answer for something that they had done, sometimes, when they were 20 years old.
Your organization, Fully Free, is based in Chicago and has published a report listing hundreds of laws in the State of Illinois that you describe as permanent punishments. Could you describe some of them and tell our listeners how they constrain the lives of formerly incarcerated individuals?
MARLON CHAMBERLAIN: I want to go back for one second and really define permanent punishments. Because it's almost like transitioning from one set of physical bars that you can feel and see to these invisible bars that we've called permanent punishments. What they really are is this prison after prison. The Fully Free campaign defines them as legal statutory barriers that deny or restrict rights and opportunities for people with arrest or conviction records long after their sentence has been served.
For example, in Illinois people are eligible to vote as soon as they walk out of a carceral system. But your ability to be involved civically is limited. People with felony convictions can't join local school councils or gaming boards. We can't be library trustees. We can't run for municipal office as an alderperson. These are positions of power that ultimately determine the resources that are allocated in our communities.
Other permanent punishment laws limit employment opportunities, whether they're lifetime bans or limited-time bans. You may be eligible for a certain employment opportunity but not be eligible for the license that you need to assume that opportunity.
And some that we found were almost absurd. We learned that we, as persons with a felony conviction, can't be on the premises of a bingo game.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Wow.
MARLON CHAMBERLAIN: Bingo. We can't play bingo.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Maybe that actually was a gift they were giving you, Marlon.
MARLON CHAMBERLAIN: Maybe so. We were trying to figure out, like, how do you even hold someone accountable? If I'm winning the bingo game and somebody's upset, then they could say, “I'm going to tell on Marlon because he shouldn't be here.”
We also learned that we can't own falconry birds.
So, there's a full spectrum of how these laws impact people. And, again, I want to just reinforce that these are people who have completed their sentences and are back at home.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: That's really unbelievable. I'm sure some of our listeners' mouths are agape right now, because they would never know any of this. And it is real.
Marlon, I know that this is a deeply personal issue for you. But if you’re willing, could please tell us how you came to be incarcerated? And could you tell us also how these permanent punishment laws have affected you? I understand that you encountered one particularly difficult situation after the death of your father.
MARLON CHAMBERLAIN: What led to my incarceration? This was way back when I was a lot younger. My girlfriend was pregnant with my oldest son now. And at the time, I was scared like a normal teenager. So, I sought out advice as to what I should do so that I could position myself to provide for my son.
I went seeking advice from my father. And my father basically told me to leave the young lady and to completely forget about my son. And I ignored that advice. I started hustling and selling drugs, which ultimately led to my incarceration.
A part of the internal work that I had to do was, I had to forgive my father and learn to accept and love him for who he was, which is my dad. That gave me an opportunity to really look at my father differently and give him an opportunity to show me something different.
In February of 2021, my father passed away and appointed me the executor over his estate. Me and my father had begun to rebuild our relationship. And ultimately, I saw this as an opportunity to carry out my father's last wishes. But because of Illinois law, which prohibits anyone with a felony conviction from being the executor or administrator of an estate, I was unable to do this.
So, that hurt. That hurt, knowing that I had rebuilt this relationship. I had forgiven my father and I had allowed him to show me something different and we started building a healthy relationship. And now I can't carry out his last wishes.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: That must have been exceptionally painful.
MARLON CHAMBERLAIN: It was.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: And frustrating.
MARLON CHAMBERLAIN: It was.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: I know you and your organization Fully Free have been lobbying the Illinois state legislature to eliminate this particular law for several years now. So far, it's been an uphill battle. Where has the opposition come from and what are some of the objections that you've encountered?
MARLON CHAMBERLAIN: Initially, a lot of our opposition was just the pandemic. The fact that we couldn't go to the state Capitol to actually talk to legislators face-to-face was a challenge.
Some of the opposition that we've heard has been with legislators voicing their concerns around financial crimes, people who have committed estate fraud or crimes against the elderly. But we haven't really received any institutional opposition. It's been individual legislators.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: I'm not arguing for permanent punishment laws for theft charges or embezzlement or anything like that. That's not the point of what I'm trying to say. But then at least I could see a logical argument.
I so strongly believe that in this country we have to talk the talk and walk the walk. So, if we're going to talk about second chances and talk about rehabilitation, we have to walk the walk. The walk is not only initially helping people when they're coming out with housing and jobs, which is a tremendous passion of mine. But it's continuing to walk that walk of eliminating these kinds of barriers that you're talking about.
MARLON CHAMBERLAIN: Absolutely.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: What would you like the Fully Free campaign to accomplish? Would you like to eliminate all laws that impose restrictions on people who have a criminal record? Are there any restrictions that you think are appropriate?
MARLON CHAMBERLAIN: The goal of the Fully Free Campaign is to eliminate all statutes that create these permanent punishment laws. And the Fully Free Campaign was really inspired by our coalition of men and women that are formerly incarcerated.
Each legislative session, we would introduce a bill each year to eliminate one specific permanent punishment law. Even though we had much success, we realized that we would be doing this work for the rest of our lives if we really wanted to eliminate all of these different statutes. So, we analyzed every statute in Illinois that creates a permanent punishment law. And the goal for us is to introduce wholesale packages that would eliminate a number of permanent punishments at one time. The goal is to eliminate all of these specific laws.
And the reason why is, the north star of this campaign is that a criminal record shouldn't follow anyone for life. If a person has completed their time – probation, parole, or whatever – that person should be able to move forward in life.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: I know that you have expressed that these permanent punishment laws pose a threat to the general public safety, because they unintentionally encourage people with criminal convictions to re-offend. Could you explain that?
MARLON CHAMBERLAIN: They put people in this precarious place of, I have a limited amount of opportunities but I also have a family that I need to provide for. In no way am I saying that it's okay for folks to choose to commit crimes. I'm not saying that. But I think how we position people is, we really set people up for failure.
Because in most cases, people are returning to communities that have a limited amount of opportunities. And then you have these statutory barriers that follow people for life. So, it's almost like we put people in positions where ultimately they make bad decisions because they're trying to survive.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: That's true of the way we reenter and reintegrate people into the community in general. Because we're not taking care of the underlying conditions that led someone to the life that they were in before they were imprisoned. When they come out, they're going back to the same neighborhoods and none of those underlying issues – whether it's a mental health issue, a drug issue, a homelessness issue, a lack of education issue, a lack of jobs issue – are addressed. Then the likelihood of successful reentry is very, very small.
You've noted that there are more than three million people with criminal convictions in Illinois alone. Could you describe the impact these permanent punishment laws have not only on them, but the communities that they live in?
MARLON CHAMBERLAIN: I would use myself as an example. When you limit a person's opportunity to provide for his family, ultimately it impacts everyone. The children of the men and women that are suffering from this lifetime punishment, it impacts our children because we're not able to really thrive to provide for our children.
A good mentor of mine uses this analogy: If we don't give people the opportunity to add to the tax base, then ultimately they become a burden to taxpayers. If folks continue to go in and out of the system, who pays for that? The community. When people begin to thrive, it feeds your community.
It hinders our communities and keeps them from being able to grow if I can't provide for my family. And when folks trickle in and out of the system, taxpayers pay for it.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: I think that's so important. You and I have been touched by the system, in different ways, obviously, but we've both been touched by the system. So, we feel it in our hearts. It personally touched you. And I’ve met the individuals it affects, and seen the disappointment in their eyes, and the frustration.
There are going to be people who are never going to get it that way. So, we have to be able to make the argument that even if you don't feel this in your heart, you're going to feel this in your pocketbook. And a lot of people understand that argument. Because at the end of the day, there are multiple reasons why this is such an issue. We hope to be able to reach everyone. And you have to know how to reach different people with different arguments.
MARLON CHAMBERLAIN: Absolutely. Everybody wins when you create opportunities for people to thrive. Everybody wins.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: You've been out for more than 10 years, and you have accomplished so much. What do you think it was about your reentry and your reintegration into the community that made your process so successful?
MARLON CHAMBERLAIN: The situation that changed my life happened on March 31, 2006. My auntie drove three hours from Chicago to Milan, Michigan, to the federal correctional institution where I was serving my 20-year sentence, and she told me in the visiting room that my mother had suffered a heart attack and passed away.
In that moment, I thought about how a month prior, I sat in the same visiting room comforting my mother because she blamed herself for me being in prison. In that moment, I just knew that I couldn't go back to live in a criminal lifestyle. So, even while I was incarcerated, I started doing whatever I could to prepare myself for my release.
And I was highly motivated. I still want my mother to be proud of me. And I believe that she's looking down at me. And, so. that's what drives me. It was that moment when I knew, I'm not coming back to this.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: I'm sure she's looking down and is super proud of everything that you have accomplished.
Marlon Chamberlain, I really, really appreciate you taking this time today to discuss this important subject and share your experiences with us. You have made such an impression on my life. And I've totally, totally been stealing your “permanent punishment” laws. Just know that there's some lady in D.C. using your term. It's me. Thank you for all the work that you're doing and for joining us on Justice Today.
MARLON CHAMBERLAIN: Thank you.
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