The stigma of felony convictions and prison sentences has followed people long after they have paid their court-ordered "debt to society." Many try desperately to rebuild their lives and stay out of the criminal justice system, 19.8 million Americans (8.6% of the adult population) face incredible hardship and discrimination. A felony conviction, in many ways, is a scarlet letter that can severely limit and prevent a person's ability to find housing, employment, or receive student loans or aid from social welfare programs. Furthermore, many states deny people with felony convictions the right to vote.
The ability to find work is one of the most crucial factors in deciding recidivism rates. If a formerly incarcerated person cannot find work after eight months, there is a much greater chance that they will commit another crime and end up back in prison. This increases after one year and even more after three years of unemployment. Even though it is obvious that finding work is critical for formerly incarcerated people to stay out of prison, only 12% of businesses openly hire people with a felony conviction on their record. In fact, because 60% of inmates released from prison are unable to find work within a year, nearly one out of every three people released will commit a crime, landing them back in prison within a year.
People of color are disproportionately affected by discrimination against formerly incarcerated people. Even when the oppressive economic conditions that contribute to higher crime rates in Black and Latino communities are not considered, people of color are significantly more likely than white people to be convicted and sentenced for the same crimes. In the free labor market, wage disparities between people of color and whites exist. There is a similar wage disparity between people with and without a criminal record in the population of formerly incarcerated people. People of color who have been incarcerated earn less than white people who have been incarcerated.
A criminal record should not sentence a person to a life of homelessness, poverty, and discrimination. We must advocate for policies and programs that encourage rather than "re-entry" into the criminal justice system, as well as wage equality that allows formerly incarcerated and convicted people to rebuild their lives and return to their communities with dignity.
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