Last week U.S. Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.) pleaded guilty to cocaine possession in Washington, D.C. The congressman was arrested by agents after purchasing 3.5 grams of cocaine for $250. While this is likely not an easy time for the congressman, let us be clear: He has many reasons relevant to this case to be grateful this Thanksgiving.
Rep. Radel should be grateful that he is not a low- or moderate-income defendant in his hometown of Fort Myers, Fla. A person who is convicted of a felony drug crime in Florida suffers a number of criminal and civil penalties. Several of these penalties have particularly tough implications for low- and moderate-income people. Here are a few:
Rep. Radel's sentence was generous. The maximum penalty in Florida for Rep. Radel's crime is five years in jail. He was permitted to plead to a misdemeanor and received a sentence of one year's probation. A first-time offender with good representation might be able to avoid jail time. In most cases, though, a defendant caught with 3.5 grams of cocaine would not be permitted to plead to a misdemeanor (the importance of avoiding a felony conviction is huge), and the probationary period would likely be closer to three years.
The unfortunate truth is that a Florida defendant who cannot afford private counsel is more likely to receive a stiff sentence. That doesn't speak to the skills of Florida's public defenders. Both the public defender's and prosecutor's offices are overwhelmed. There is pressure on both sides to dispose of cases quickly. If all the drug cases in Florida went to trial, the entire system would grind to a halt. The threat by a private attorney to drag a case out over a number of months is not an idle one. In order to preserve resources, a prosecutor may be more willing to make a deal with a defendant whose attorney isn't overwhelmed and can take the time to defend their client to the fullest.
Rep. Radel should be grateful that he doesn't rely on public housing. He is a business owner, and his congressional financial disclosure form reveals that he has inherited millions of dollars. He owns a home of his own. If he lived in public housing, his conviction would result in the expulsion of his entire family from their home. No such penalties apply to wealthy home owners.
Even in private housing, most landlords do background checks. A felony record makes it much more difficult for an ex-offender to get housing.
Rep. Radel should be grateful that he doesn't need public assistance to care for his family. It has been widely reported that Rep. Radel voted in favor of a measure to permit states to drug test recipients of food stamps, even as he was using drugs himself. It is less widely known that in 2011 Florida passed legislation that required recipients of cash assistance to be drug tested. The law was in effect for four months, until federal judges halted the program on constitutional grounds. During the time in which the program was in effect, only 2.6 percent of those tested were identified as in violation of the law. But Rep. Radel would likely have been among the 2.6 percent who came up with failed drug tests.
Rep. Radel should be grateful that his net worth largely comes from his business interests and inheritance and not from work. An employer can lawfully fire an employee with a felony conviction, of course. While a number of public figures from both parties have called upon Rep. Radel to resign from the House of Representatives, it is by no means clear that his colleagues will force him out of his seat.
As for finding a new job, while the unemployment rate for felons is not officially collected, all estimates are that the rate is quite high. Some have suggested that the rate is as high as 70 to 75 percent. The Center for Economic and Policy Research estimated that not counting the large population of ex-offenders lowered the employment rate for all males by 1.5 to 1.7 percent.
Felons are not allowed to hold state government jobs in Florida. Furthermore, in 2011 Florida passed legislation making all state employees subject to drug tests. That legislation is currently tied up in the courts. It appears that when the dust is settled, at least some state employees will be subject to drug testing.
Many private employers either cannot or will not consider someone with a felony record. Felons applying for a license in certain regulated fields like real estate or cosmetology will have their applications judged on a case-by-case basis. Good luck getting a job working in a pharmacy with a drug conviction.
Rep. Radel should be grateful that he will still be allowed to vote. In Florida a voter who is convicted of a felony is automatically removed from the voter rolls. They can apply for reinstatement after their sentence has been completed. If Rep. Radel had been convicted of a felony, not only would he have been disenfranchised, as a public official convicted of a felony, but he would also have to wait seven years after the end of his sentence to apply for restoration of his rights. No such civil penalty is levied against someone convicted of a misdemeanor.
Keep your chin up and be grateful, Rep. Radel. You may have put yourself in a tough situation, but the fallout could have been much worse. A low- or moderate-income person arrested in your hometown under precisely the same circumstances could tell you so.
Renￃﾩ Bryce-Laporte is the Principal at Bryce-Laporte Information & Consulting, focusing on helping low- and moderate-income Americans find social and economic opportunity. For the past 17 years, Renￃﾩ has helped these Americans earn more, keep more of what they earn and grow their assets for the long-term.