Listen: The Impact of a Criminal Record on Mental Health

We spoke to people across the country living with a criminal record. In the second installment of our audio series, hear them describe in their own words the impact of a conviction on their mental health.

In the last installment of this series, we heard about how hard it is for folks with criminal records to get decent jobs. If you haven’t listened to or read that installment, we encourage you to go back and start there first.

In this episode, we’ll be talking about the far-reaching negative impact that a criminal record has on mental health and the stigma of living with a conviction. For millions of people living with a criminal record, this label can make them feel like they are “less than.” Convictions don’t define people. But society defines them that way.

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. But despite this overwhelming commonality, people often don’t want to talk about their experiences with others. It might lead friends, family, or coworkers to look at them differently. The discrimination of stigma causes pain and loneliness and a constant worry that others think less of you. This marginalization leads to poor mental health and continues the trauma that people living with records have to navigate in their daily lives. It’s overwhelming. It’s dehumanizing. And it largely exists in the dark. The first thing we can do to erase this stigma is to talk about it openly. 

Many people living with convictions have to balance daily life with dealing with and healing from trauma. Experiences with the criminal legal system, especially incarceration, can lead to lasting mental health struggles.

The stigma of a criminal record impacted almost everyone we spoke with during their job application process. When applying for jobs, people living with convictions face the constant and frustrating reminder of their past through background checks. Some people apply to hundreds of jobs a week waiting for a call back. It’s a massive effort that takes a toll on their mental health. Repeated rejections reinforce the feeling of being “less than.”

Some convictions carry a stronger stigma than others, and this is especially true for people with convictions that are deemed “violent.” The current conversation around life after conviction often centers people who commit “low level, non-violent offenses.” People with “violent” records get left behind and are often ineligible for record clearance. But the definition of “violent crime” isn’t as clear cut as we imagine. The label of “violent” can apply to all types of convictions that you might not think of as violent. It’s a label that involves a lot of subjectivity and racial bias. Criminal charges are more likely to be considered “violent” when a person of color is on the stand. And ultimately whether someone’s conviction belongs in a “violent” or “nonviolent” category misses the point.  There are millions of people forever blocked from moving forward long after their sentences are over because of a record they can’t clear. 

Incarceration, and the stigma attached after release, deeply affects families. Incarceration can sever the relationship between parents and children and make it harder to reconnect after release. Children may also feel a secondhand stigma from having parents with records.

People describe the stigma of a conviction as something that makes them feel lonely and stuck. It’s difficult to get support. Moving forward and healing from the trauma caused by the criminal legal system can feel impossible.

The criminal legal system creates this stigma. People we talked to described just how much the current criminal legal system breaks them down. Others said there is a desperate need for programs and services that set them up for the future.

We at Code for America believe that no one should be prevented from moving forward because of a past conviction. With policy and technology, we can create a world where convictions are cleared from someone’s record automatically—opening paths forward for millions of people. People whose records have been cleared are freed from the stigma of their convictions. They don’t have to fear background checks for jobs or worry about what a potential landlord will think of them. They don’t have to carry their conviction around in their back pocket. They can heal from mental health struggles and reconnect with their children. They can move on with their lives.

We can make sure criminal legal reform is equitable and reparative by centering people with convictions. With their input, we can ensure everyone has access to jobs, housing, education, and so much more. With their stories, we can start the process of healing from the traumas of the criminal legal system. We can create a society that doesn’t define people by their pasts.

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 impact a criminal record has on housing prospects

Want to hear the entire second episode in audio form? Follow the link below.

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