One in five California residents has a criminal record, according to a new report from Californians for Safety and Justice. In light of such a widespread problem, it is time to have a conversation about and reassess the many barriers placed before people who have done time.
For the 8 million Californians with a criminal record, successful reintegration into society is constrained not only by the stigma that comes with that past, but thousands of legally erected barriers.
These barriers come in the form of over 4,800 laws imposing collateral consequences against people with criminal records, with impacts spanning from employment to housing to parental rights.
Most of these laws, 58 percent of them, limit access to employment opportunities. And the vast majority of them are lifetime restrictions.
While there aren’t state-specific estimates available, one national estimate from the Prison Policy Initiative suggests 27 percent of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed.
For perspective, that’s more than the 25 percent unemployment rate Americans faced during the Great Depression.
Meanwhile, federal laws impose a litany of restrictions on access to education grants and other forms of public assistance.
Coupled with the high amount of debt that often accompanies a criminal conviction, these barriers come together to make it much harder for people with criminal records to successfully redeem themselves.
According to a survey of over 2,000 Californians with criminal records, most, 76 percent, reported problems associated with having a criminal conviction. Half of those surveyed reported difficulties finding work and struggling to pay fines, while 35 percent reported having trouble getting occupational licenses and a quarter reported difficulties finding a place to live.
Jay Jordan, director of the Second Chances Program at Californians for Safety, calls this problem an “epidemic.”
Jordan, who himself was previously incarcerated, notes that most people with criminal records were never even incarcerated and many have gone on to live for years, even decades, without committing other crimes.
Yet, these collateral consequences persist, stifling the potential of millions of California residents.
It is one thing to hold people accountable for their actions and take measures to actually keep people safe. It’s another thing entirely to hinder the employment, housing and educational opportunities of people with criminal records for the mere sake of doing so.
Californians for Safety and Justice recommends a number of reforms worth considering.
One is to adopt policies purging arrest and conviction records after either the completion of a sentence or a specified period of crime-free living. Another perhaps more immediately practical step is to restrict the ability of licensing boards to deny otherwise qualified workers an occupational license solely because of a criminal record.
Fundamentally, it is in all of our interests that people can successfully reintegrate into society. How to do that should be a point of conversation for years to come.
(c)2018 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)
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