A recent report by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers found that a staggering number of people have a criminal record in the United States: approximately 65 million people – that’s more than 1 in 4 adults! Many of these individuals have been incarcerated to pay their debt to society, but what is most disturbing is that even after people have served their time – their punishment lingers beyond the bars and seeps into even the most fundamental aspects involved with their day-to-day lives. ‘One in four’ people will face countless discriminatory barriers because of the collateral consequences of their criminal record.
Collateral consequences include the many laws in this country that make it extremely difficult for a person with a criminal record to become a full participant in the most crucial aspects of society. Some of the barriers that are imposed on people with criminal records include restricting access to: employment, housing, public benefits, education, credit and loans, legal immigration status, voting in elections, and parental rights.
Collateral consequences are often justified by the desire to improve public safety — and public safety is something we all want and care deeply about — but in reality, there is a lack of evidence that such laws actually make us safer. If a person is left without the vital resources to survive and exist as a full member of society, it can be impossible for them to successfully contribute back to society and provide for themselves and their families.
The report by the NACDL suggests ways for reforming collateral consequences so that such laws do not continue to unnecessarily deprive millions of people from living healthy and productive lives. The report recommendeds that as a nation, we must work to reduce the stigmatization of people who have fulfilled the term of their sentence. This is definitely a step in the right direction! Other points touched upon the importance of enforcing only those laws and collateral consequences which are proven through evidence-based practices to successfully improve public safety. The report also mentioned the opportunity of restoring the rights of those who have been convicted, but who have completed their sentence, rather than continuously having to carry the burden of their criminal record throughout their entire life. This would make a powerful difference!
With the overwhelming rate of mass incarceration in our country over recent decades, our odds of encountering or knowing someone involved in the criminal justice system is incredibly high. One in four people have a criminal record. We must change our outlook on crime and recognize the value of each individual–especially those who have overcome their past experiences and succeeded. As a nation, we must work to reduce collateral consequences to help improve the lives and opportunities for all people with criminal records, which improves society as a whole.
Olivia Cahue-Diaz, Root & Rebound Summer Intern