These stories are closer to you than you may think. There are countless people whose lives have already been upended because of the institutionalized racism inherent in the criminal legal system. Decades of federal, state, and local policies and practices—like the War on Drugs—that disproportionately target Black people and communities of color have made it so that one in three Americans is burdened with a record. Nearly half of U.S. children now have at least one parent with a record. Chances are, either you or someone close to you has a record—and you might not even know about it because of stigma’s pernicious grip on our shared sense of belonging.
Housing, food, education, transportation, healthcare, paying your bills, or just living your life—it’s hard to do pretty much anything in the United States without money. And it’s hard to get money if you can’t get a safe, stable job that pays a livable wage.
That reality might seem simple, but if you’re living with a criminal record, it’s extremely difficult. Living with a record carries thousands of “collateral consequences,” which means doing pretty much anything is harder. The pandemic has worsened these consequences, and for this first episode of our audio series, we’ll focus on what they mean for jobs. These consequences create inhumane job conditions—from getting paid less for grueling work to unpredictable schedules, from having to take a job with no benefits to not having a guarantee that the job will be there tomorrow. A study from Harvard found that having a record cut someone’s chances of getting a job call back by half, which means formerly incarcerated folks have a much higher unemployment rate than the general population.
Convictions don’t define people. But America’s systems are defining them that way.
As people start to apply for jobs, they realize their background check is still a barrier. Applying for a job is stressful for most people, but it’s even harder for folks living with a criminal record, since they have to deal with background checks. Even low-paying jobs that were more accessible before the pandemic often conduct background checks, making them hard to get.
Right now, there is extreme competition for jobs, and the sheer number of applicants for any job is overwhelming. For people living with a record, competition is more intense now than ever before.
People living with a record had unstable jobs before and during the pandemic. They’re more likely to feel unstable in their jobs because jobs available to those with convictions are often lower-paying or under the table. Even once someone has found a job, there’s no guarantee that their background check won’t eventually come up and cause them to lose it.
Losing your job has a big impact on your family and your career path. Think about the impact that all these barriers have on families. Think about the courage it takes to submit a job application and wait for a callback. Now imagine doing so knowing you have a record. Imagine yourself struggling every day to break down thousands more barriers while your children are watching and leaning on you. Losing these jobs puts people in a precarious situation, especially as they know that finding the next job will take time because of their background check.
All of this affects people’s mental health. Folks with criminal records are often applying to hundreds of jobs a week. Understandably, this massive effort begins to take a toll on their mental health, especially when at each turn, their past conviction history confronts them. They bring a tremendous amount of courage into a world where the criminal legal system raises barriers higher and higher.
The overwhelming amount of stigma connected to having a record chips away at our shared sense of belonging on a daily basis. The job application process is just one of many examples that shows how people living with criminal records feel left out and looked down on.
We at Code for America believe that no one should be prevented from moving forward because of a criminal record. With policy and technology, we can imagine and create a world where past convictions are cleared from someone’s record automatically, opening paths forward for millions of people. By listening to and including the experiences of people with convictions as we plan that future, we can make sure that record clearance policies are equitable and reparative—so everyone can access jobs, housing, education, and so much more. On this path, we can begin the process of healing from the traumas of the criminal legal system. Doing so means providing meaningful and fulfilling options to individuals with a record.
Stay tuned for the next in our audio series about the effects of living with a conviction on your record. Next time, we’ll focus on the far-reaching impact of stigma that convictions create for millions of people.
Want to hear the entire first episode in audio form? Follow the link below.