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Percentage of Americans with Felony Convictions Increases, Especially for Blacks

by Christopher Zoukis

A January 2018 report from Pew Charitable Trusts indicated that the number of U.S. residents with a felony record rose sharply in every state between 1980 and 2010. The report analyzed data from a University of Georgia study published in September 2017, which showed that several states have seen a double-digit increase in the percentage of people with a felony record during that 30-year period. As of 2010, around 19 million Americans had been convicted of a felony.

In Georgia, the state with the largest increase, four percent of adults were felons in 1980. Three decades later, a full 15 percent of the state’s population had felony records. Florida, Indiana, Louisiana and Texas all had felony conviction rates above 10 percent in 2010. Across the country, every state has seen a significant increase in the percentage of residents with felony records.

Fordham University law professor and criminal justice expert John Pfaff called the study “incredibly important.” The results exposed a significant flaw in criminal justice reform efforts: While states have been working to reduce their prison populations, there has been less of an effort to deal with the collateral consequences of felony convictions.

“Georgia has been trying to get people out of prison with probation, but we’re seeing that even with probation they’re still getting that record,” Pfaff said.

There are significant repercussions for the increasing number of people saddled with a felony conviction. Gary C. Mohr, head of Ohio’s Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, acknowledged that such consequences are severe and can last a lifetime.

“Even probation or a six-month sentence is really a life sentence because it affects jobs, it affects housing, it affects everything in their lives,” Mohr said. Indeed, when people are jailed for even a short period of time they can lose their employment, their car, their savings, their residence and even custody of their children.

Plus there are other collateral consequences of having a felony conviction, such as loss of voting rights and other civil rights, the inability to obtain professional licenses, and placement on public registries for sex crimes and some drug offenses. Plus, of course, the lifelong stigma of being a felon, which makes it harder to find employment and housing.

The Pew Charitable Trusts report also illustrated the increasing gap in punishment between whites and blacks. In 2010, the percentage of all Americans with a felony record was 8.11 percent (including three percent who have served time in prison), but for black males the rate was 33 percent (including 15 percent who have been to prison). Additionally, while the absolute number of people with felony convictions increased threefold between 1980 and 2010, it increased fivefold for blacks during that time.

Pfaff noted that states with relatively small black populations like West Virginia and New Hampshire saw a correspondingly small increase in the rate of felony convictions. “[W]ithout that racial divide between a white correctional system and a poor black population, it may be no coincidence that there’s a lower felony rate” in those states, he said.

“Punishment has been a prominent political lever, especially since the 1970s. And it’s been a very bipartisan issue, both in terms of becoming harsher on crime, but also as we’re now seeing a reform movement,” said Sarah Shannon, one of the authors of the University of Georgia study. “Proponents of harsher punishments on the right and on the left in earlier decades are now grappling with the extraordinary fiscal and social costs of incarceration, particularly since the Great Recession, when states were really feeling the belts tighten around their budgets and the vast majority of funding for the criminal justice system comes at the state level. We hope that our work will help scholars and policymakers understand these past trends and their effects on a broad range of social issues, as well as inform future efforts to change policy.” 


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