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“Collateral Consequences” of Convictions Hinder Chances of Post-Prison Success

At least 77 million American adults have criminal records. That’s almost one out of three adults over the age of 18 in the entire nation (and doesn’t even include those with juvenile records). The Council of State Governments tracks collateral consequences of a conviction in  detail and said a conviction makes it impossible to obtain a license to work as a plumber, barber, manicurist, interior designer, or bans altogether the ability to get an occupational license, which about one in four Americans rely on to do a multitude of jobs. A conviction can cause someone with a license to lose all of this.

“One thing I’ve learned while researching criminal justice reform and teaching college classes in prisons is that the reason the transition to life outside the corrections system is so hard is that there are more than 44,000 indirect consequences of a criminal conviction,” wrote researcher Cynthia A. Golembeski in an article posted at The Conversation. She said the reasons for imposing bans on those with convictions are often broad, vague and subjective — without any evidence to support that they do any good for anyone. And these are more than 1,000 federal laws with collateral consequences for a federal a state conviction, she said.

Those who get convicted, usually by taking an enticing deal to plead guilty to get out of prison, are later surprised by these restrictions because neither their lawyer nor the court are required to tell them about these collateral consequences. They might leave jail or prison to find themselves homeless.

Landlords and public housing authorities can discriminate against those with convictions, and even those who were simply arrested without a conviction. In Pennsylvania, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Maine, and California, being arrested in the last five years is considered “criminal activity” and can bar access to housing, even without a conviction.

Landing a job also can be a problem. At least 19,000 of the 44,000 collateral consequences involved employment restrictions, Golembeski said, and over 13,000 relate to occupational licensing and certification. That is important, she said, because 1 in 4 U.S. workers need mandatory occupational licenses to work, from driving a truck to working as an electrician.

Going back to school to get a better job may be impossible. Certain convictions could deny admission to college or financial aid, during incarceration and afterward.

Government benefits may be denied as well. In the mid-1990s, Congress and President Bill Clinton approved states denying benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”) to anyone with a drug-related conviction. This includes mother with babies and small children who rely on government assistance to get basic food items like milk and baby formula. Those restrictions remain in place, even after the so-called “war on drugs” has proven to be a complete failure.

South Carolina, for example, has a lifetime ban on SNAP benefits for anyone with a felony drug conviction. Michigan and four other states permanently reject SNAP benefits for anyone with two or more felony drug convictions. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, the author reports, “recently signed a bill banning those with felony drug convictions and some convicted as sex offenders from receiving public benefits for 10 years.”

These often-arbitrary restrictions have disproportionately affected minorities and those with low incomes, just like incarceration itself does, Golembeski said. And veterans who served their country may lose their insurance, health care and pensions after a conviction. In most states, those with convictions can’t vote. It’s estimated that 6 million Americans couldn’t vote in the 2016 election. That’s like excluding entire states from the election.

Golembeski said she sees changes coming. Community efforts have been made to prevent housing discrimination against those with criminal records in 11 cities: New York and three other cities support reunification of those with conviction with family in public housing. And the Department of Housing and Urban Development has indicated that rejecting housing to those with convictions may violate the Fair Housing Act.

In 2019, a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report called for an end to all “punitive mandatory consequences that do not serve public safety, bear no rational relationship to the offense committed, and impede people convicted of crimes from safely reentering and becoming contributing members of society.”