Criminal Records a Major Piece of the Poverty Puzzle

December 15, 2014

“One Strike and You’re Out,” the Center for American Progress entitles its new report on the barriers people face when they’ve got criminal records. An astounding number of people do — far more than our decades-old enthusiasm for incarcerating people would lead us to expect.

Our anti-poverty agenda “risks missing a major piece of the puzzle” if it doesn’t deal with the barriers, the CAP report says.

They’re a reason many people are homeless — and state and local governments so strapped for funds to house them. They’re even, in some places, a reason poor families go hungry. And they help account for the racial inequality that’s once again in the news.

Other bad things too, e.g., untreated mental health and substance abuse problems, a dent in our country’s economic productivity. More than I can possibly deal with in a post. So a partial overview of the problem. A followup perhaps on CAP’s “road map” to address it.

Vast Number of Criminal Records

At the end of 2012, states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories collectively had criminal record files on nearly 100.6 million people. Some files may reflect arrests and/or convictions in more than one jurisdiction, however.

An analysis by the National Employment Law Project estimated a rounded-up 65 million unduplicated files on adults in 2008-9. Still a very large number — close to one in three Americans then. And we’ve no reason to believe the percent is lower now.

Much has been made of our extraordinarily large prisoner population — by far and away the largest reported for any country in the world. But many who’ve got criminal records were never behind bars. Some were arrested, but not convicted. Some not even tried.

Others were convicted of petty, nonviolent offenses, including things like disorderly conduct, drunkenness and harmless behaviors cities have prohibited to harass homeless people out of sight — or out of their turf altogether.

Not an Equal Opportunity Problem

A book published several years ago argued, as its title indicates, that mass incarceration, i.e., the unprecedented rate at which we imprison people, has become “the new Jim Crow” — a supposedly color-blind replacement for overt racial segregation.

We’ve got federal laws prohibiting race discrimination in employment, housing, education, other federally-funded programs and (putatively) voting. But it’s perfectly legal to discriminate against felons, except in some limited cases carved out by recent state and local laws.

And felons are disproportionately blacks and Hispanics, the former even more than the latter. A recent Sentencing Project fact sheet tells us that black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men and Hispanic men 2.5 times as likely.

One in three black men is likely to be imprisoned as some point, as compared to one in seventeen white men. Though black women are less likely to go to prison, the disparity between them and white women is even greater.

What this means, of course, is that far higher percents of blacks and Hispanics will suffer the lifelong penalties of having a criminal record.

Rampant Use of Background Checks

At least 95% of people sent to state prison will be released. But that doesn’t mean their punishment will end. Their criminal records will significantly limit their opportunities for (legal) work. This is surely a major reason that more than 40% of people released from state prisons are back behind bars within three years.

People with criminal records may also have a hard time renting an apartment, even if they can afford it. They may, in some cases, have no chance at all of living in public housing, even with a family member who’s never had a run-in with the law.

The limited, but expandable public housing ban dates back to 1988. The private-sector barriers may be at least as old. But they weren’t nearly as high and wide as they are now.

In a way, the culprit here is the internet. Like much of our lives, past and present, criminal records are easy to find online. Entrepreneurial types have seized on the opportunity to provide “instant” background checks.

About 86% of employers recently surveyed ran (or commissioned) background checks on applicants for at least some jobs. For 76%, discovery of a nonviolent felony would be a “very influential factor” in the decision not to hire.

More surprising, at least to me, is the fact that roughly two-thirds of colleges surveyed in 2009 collected criminal history information from all applicants. And 55% said they considered it in deciding whom to admit.

We’ve no comparable figures for landlords. We do, however, have a survey finding that “only” 51% of landlords who managed their own buildings conducted criminal background checks. We’re left to infer that the percent is far higher — and told that neighbors are far safer — when buildings are professionally managed.

Tattered Safety Net

Criminal records are a direct cause, as well as a consequence of poverty, the CAP report says. In fact, one study concluded that the poverty rate would have fallen by more than 20% between 1980 and 2004 if we hadn’t engaged in mass incarceration.

The people whom criminal records trap in poverty may also fall through deliberately created holes in our safety net. As I’ve already mentioned, they may be barred from public housing — and for sure will be if they’d been convicted of manufacturing methamphetamines, no matter how long ago.

They may also be banned, for life, from receiving SNAP (food stamp) benefits and/or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families if they were convicted of any drug-related felony. Eight states have chosen to preserve the absolute bans on both, though federal law allows them to opt out.

Most other states have merely modified the bans, e.g., by exempting people convicted only of drug possession or those who’ve managed to get a slot in a substance abuse treatment program.

Only 14 states have decided that one strike should never mean you’re out of SNAP and TANF. Food on the table, some cash for the dreadfully poor, job training and affordable child care all surely help people who’ve returned to the community stay there successfully.

And they mean that the ill-advised “get tough on crime” policies won’t cause more collateral damage to children than they already do.