How Old Criminal Records Continue To Haunt Millions Of Americans
Tens of millions of Americans are blocked from economic opportunity because of a past record.
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There are so many injustices in our country that it's easy to overlook major ones that, like most, disproportionately hurt Black Americans and other communities of color. One that this country can no longer afford to ignore is the widespread economic and civic disenfranchisement of people with old criminal records.
There are nearly 80 million Americans now living with a past record — that’s basically one member of every family of four in the U.S. Even after serving their sentence, they face more than 40,000 restrictions to accessing jobs, housing, higher education and other basic opportunities to succeed.
This promotes what we call “post-conviction poverty” — a state of economic immobility that hurts us all.
When he helped us launch #TimeDone in 2018, Nipsey Hussle said: “It’s against common sense to have somebody pay their debt … come home, and still be penalized and held back from integrating back into regular society and life.”
As two citizens who know all too well what that means, both personally and for our families and communities, that message has stayed with us.
Tens of millions of Americans are blocked from economic opportunity because of a past record, even though about 90% of us are no longer involved in the justice system — not in jail or prison, and not on probation or parole. Most are years past our convictions — together, we are a combined almost 40 years beyond ours. We haven’t had any contact with the justice system for years, beyond our advocacy for reform.
Yet, the expansive disenfranchisement persists.
The two of us may have overcome these obstacles in some ways, but we still face major restrictions to opportunity. We have long taken responsibility for our personal histories and consistently make positive contributions to our communities. Yet, neither of us could get a barber’s license or chaperone our child’s field trip today because of these old records.
Others face worse.
Blocking people from earning a living to feed their families, or from contributing to the lives of their own children and the larger community, has a devastating impact. In some cases, entire professions — like being a car salesperson or a real estate broker — and those in the fastest-growing sectors of the economy are off limits.
We are also redlined from safe housing, denied access to educational opportunities and cannot even volunteer our time to support our children by serving on their school PTA or coaching their sports team.
America’s laws and policies related to past records push millions of people who no longer have any involvement in the justice system into “post-conviction poverty,” a never-ending sentence where nearly every chance at economic mobility and positively contributing to society can be blocked.
No matter how hard we work to succeed and contribute, we remain locked out. And our entire country pays the price.
Nearly 70% of people with past felony convictions reported difficulty finding a job. More than half of us can’t secure housing — more than double the rate of the general adult population. The U.S. loses approximately $87 billion in economic activity every year, as a result of the restrictions to employment alone. The scale of this issue makes it impossible to ignore, and research by the Alliance for Safety and Justice shows that the impact is greater than most people have ever understood.
Yet, most Americans love a comeback and believe in redemption. It’s demonstrated in how our country treats bankruptcy, allowing businesses to take accountability and reset — bankruptcy records are cleared after seven years. But we’ve failed to uphold these values for individual Americans.
The solution that can allow us to live up to our ideals is to make redemption real by sunsetting old records after a certain amount of time. Ending the practice of indefinitely blocking people from moving forward in their lives is a common-sense path to a safer and stronger country.
Corporations and governments can fulfill their stated commitments to racial justice by supporting this solution, given the disproportionate impact of these lifetime economic and civic barriers on Black Americans — the result of decades-long excessive criminal justice policies that the American public has increasingly been rejecting.
Elected and corporate leaders should take concrete steps to address this through public policy and business practices. As we rebound from the pandemic’s devastating impacts, it’s time to advance laws that sunset past records and policies that promote economic prosperity. State governments must sunset old records, with federal funding support, something recently recommended in Congress. The private sector must support this, and actively work to end the employment restrictions, housing redlining, and civic disenfranchisement it directly and indirectly maintains against Americans with old records.
It’s the right thing to do for families, would boost the economy, and make us safer.
Mysonne Linen is an independent hip-hop artist and criminal justice reform activist, who is a Co-Founder of Until Freedom and a #TimeDone Advisory Board Member.
Jay Jordan is Co-Founder and National Director of #TimeDone, and Vice President of Alliance for Safety and Justice.