Why We Shouldn’t Allow Hunter Biden, Donald Trump’s Felony Convictions To Be Turned Into Political Theater

Jury Finds Former President Donald Trump Guilty On All 34 Counts In Hush Money Trial

People celebrate after former President Donald Trump was found guilty on all counts at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 30, 2024, in New York City. | Source: Spencer Platt / Getty

Over the past several weeks, we’ve seen several high-profile political figures be convicted of felonies. On June 11, President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, was convicted on three felony gun charges. The conviction represented the first time a member of a sitting president’s family was charged with a felony.

On May 30, former President Donald Trump was found guilty on 34 felony charges of falsifying business records. The former commander-in-chief faces multiple other legal challenges in Georgia and the District of Columbia. While his fate is yet to be determined, the millions of Americans with felony convictions understand the damaging impact of a felony label.

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For persons disconnected from the criminal justice system and for persons who haven’t embraced a loved one with a criminal conviction, it might be easy to minimize the significance of the moment. Partisan politics isn’t helping us understand either. For instance, many of the questions in this moment center on “the impact of Trump’s felony conviction on the presidential race” or “the impact of Hunter Biden’s conviction on the race” or “How much money either presidential campaign will raise after the conviction?” and “will voters care?”

These conversations are important, but they’re only one part of the story. Ultimately, there are bigger stories at play: A human story, a family story, and a story that impacts our culture. This is every bit as important as the legal and political ramifications of Trump and Hunter Biden’s convictions.

I fear that the matter involving Trump and Hunter Biden will create a deluge of political fodder. However alluring the temptation, I invite us all to resist the urge to take shots at political opponents at the expense of the 19 million people in the U.S. who live under the weight of a felony conviction. The debate around felony convictions will impact millions of Americans, beyond President Trump or even Hunter Biden.

It is possible to disagree with a person’s behavior and still understand the impact of felony convictions not just these two individuals, but on the millions of people who have (or know someone with) felonies. It is possible to disagree with a person’s politics and still understand that a felony conviction is life-altering. Justice-impacted people have found themselves in the unenviable position of being the most despised. It doesn’t matter our race; we are uniquely vilified.

Hunter Biden, seen through a window, arrives at federal court i

Hunter Biden, seen through a window, arrives at federal court in Wilmington, Delaware, on June 11, 2024. | Source: The Washington Post / Getty

It is truly sobering that Hunter Biden and Donald Trump now join the ranks of millions upon millions of American citizens who are living with a felony conviction. Pundits and even elected leaders need to be careful about the collateral consequences a political circus surrounding these two individuals will cause for other Americans.

Let’s take a moment to think about the sheer weight of the term “felon.” Mothers and fathers have been reduced to rubble if they have run afoul of the law and been convicted of a felony. Loved ones are restricted on where they live and one once they have been branded a felon. Our family members with felonies are unable to provide foster care services for young people in their families if they have a felony conviction. To be labeled a felon is to live with a scarlet letter.

I want to be clear that I don’t want to see people get felony convictions. And I recognize that we have a choice in this moment. Do we lean in or turn away? This country has been struggling with the question of whether a person convicted of a felony should have the right to vote or run for office. If governors, congressmen and women, and millions of Americans stand whole-heartedly in support of the candidacy of someone with a previous felony conviction, society should have no qualms about allowing everyday American citizens with a prior felony conviction, to vote.  If there is overwhelming support to give someone with a felony the most important job in the world – one that requires the highest level of security – then we should have no problem banning the box from job applications.  If a person with a felony conviction can now move into the White House, no justice-impacted person should have barriers to safe and affordable housing.

For decades, Americans with felony convictions have been forced to face tens of thousands of collateral consequences and have been relegated to second-class citizenship status. In addition to the person with the felony, their families and communities are often impacted. I can’t tell you the number of times the people in my network tell me about having to rely on loved ones to help them obtain housing, employment and basic sustenance.

To now have a presidential candidate, and the son of a sitting president join the ranks of persons with felonies is surreal. Again, one need not be a fan of either to appreciate the devastation that a felony conviction brings to them and to persons similarly labeled. If a person who once held the highest office in this country is now referred to as a “felon,” it is time for a more sincere approach to addressing criminal justice, felony re-enfranchisement, reentry and so much more.

If we use this moment to rail against people we do not like, we will have missed the chance to do something that impacts millions of Americans. It is time for a serious discussion about these issues and one that is divorced from a single individual. We need to focus on the impact of our justice system on millions of young people, families, and communities. Anything less is pure political theater, divisive, and in total disregard to the millions of everyday citizens impacted by the justice system.

Desmond Meade is the executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a 2023 nominee for a Nobel Peace Prize and a 2019 TIME 100 cohort member.


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