Few stigmas in American society are more burdensome than that of a criminal record. For a convict, finding steady work and housing may be difficult or impossible, and relationships with co-workers, friends or spouses may be cut off altogether. Police agencies tend to stay in close contact with ex-offenders. These hardships may ultimately cause the offender to commit new crimes, conjuring up the unwelcome scenario that the public claims it would rather avoid.
There are roughly 12 million ex-felons living in America, accounting for 8 per cent of its working age population, according to Northwestern University researcher Devah Pager. Two-thirds of newly released inmates commit new crimes, with 40 per cent returning to prison within three years---because of the barriers they face in earning a living and the lack of attention given to those problems, Pager contends.
For newly released inmates, it does not take long to recognise that they face significant barriers to jobs, housing and licensing---particularly in the education, health care and transportation fields---that threaten to marginalise them permanently. Access to information in the computer age makes it easier than ever to weed out the ex-offender. Margaret Colgate Love, the author of a 2005 Sentencing Project study, noted that 33 states purport to bar discrimination in hiring on that basis, yet only a handful offer any kind of relief for people who file such claims.
The Sentencing Project study, "Relief From The Collateral Consequences Of A Criminal Conviction," attempted to offer the first comprehensive overview of states' policies toward ex-offenders. Only nine states, for example, consider pardons for more than a handful of exceptional cases---and even in those states few apply, because information is difficult to access, Love contended. At the federal level, Love found that only a handful of pardons have been granted in the last 20 years. Meanwhile, the federal government has increased requirements for background checks and hiring bans for convicts in fields that it regulates, such as banking, child care, education, health care and transportation, she said.
Pager's study, published in The American Journal Of Sociology, sought to test employers' attitudes by sending out pairs of white and African-American applicants for similar entry-level jobs and having them acknowledge a mock criminal record. Pager found that employers called back 34 per cent of her white testers who didn't report a criminal record, versus 17 per cent who did. Pager also concluded that admitting a criminal record reduced an applicant's chances by as much as 50 per cent. Yet only 14 per cent of the African-American testers without a record heard from employers, suggesting that race played a major role, as well, in her opinion.
With the pardon process a dead issue in most states, the second most common remedy is the sealing or authorised removal of criminal records, known as expungement. However, the Sentencing Project's study found only eight states willing to consider expungement for most adult felonies. Other states, Love writes, reserve the privilege only for minor, first-time or nonviolent offenders. By contrast, deferred prosecution---which allows first-timers the chance to have convictions dismissed if they do not get into further trouble---has grown in recent years due to the leverage given to the authorities using it.
Across the board, the outlook for people with criminal records has only grown tougher, especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Love writes. The remedies that do exist for ex-offenders to re-enter society are often fraught with unintended perils. For example, only Connecticut requires the destruction of records after an expungement, Love notes---raising the possibility, in other jurisdictions, for unauthorised use of the data. These contradictions led her to conclude: "Notwithstanding our fond national self-image, ours is not a land of second chances, at least as far as the legal system is concerned."