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The Financial Cost of a Conviction

Categories: Drew Whitcup, ZiR

image of incarcerated personThe Nation recently published an online opinion piece by Rebecca Vallas that addresses the lifelong financial consequences of a criminal conviction in America. The context is important; she begins by lauding recent bipartisan efforts to reform the criminal justice system, including the effort to make sentencing less draconian. But, as Vallas points out, receiving—and even serving—a sentence is not at all the end of the road for most convicted felons. To be living in free society with the stain of a conviction can have outsize repercussions. Vallas points to a few:

[D]ue to the rise of technology and the internet—as well as federal and state policy decisions—having even a minor criminal record can stand in the way of employment, housing, education and training, building good credit, and even meager public assistance. For example, nearly nine in ten employers use background checks in hiring, and four in five landlords conduct background checks on potential tenants. Even a minor criminal record can mean every door is closed to you as you seek to get back on your feet.

Perhaps convicts will one day be punished by having to serve their sentences, but not beyond them.

Furthermore, Vallas notes, the cost extends beyond those convicted, impacting all of society:

This has broad implications—not just for the tens of millions of affected individuals, but also for their families, their communities and our national economy. For example, the cost of shutting people with criminal records out of the labor market runs as high as $65 billion per year in GDP terms.

Senators Rand Paul and Cory Booker have recently introduced a bill that would address some of these issues; they’ve dubbed it the REDEEM Act. Vallas highlights some of its elements, including a mechanism for people to clean up federal records and improved accuracy in FBI background checks (in order to avoid suffering from false or inaccurate information). Perhaps the most critical component—restoring access to public assistance for people convicted of drug possession—is explained here:

In many states, even meager public assistance is out of reach for people with certain types of criminal records. The 1996 welfare law included a lifetime ban on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) for people convicted of a felony drug offense. The law gives states the option to modify or waive the bans, and many have. Yet most states continue to enforce the ban in whole or in part for TANF, SNAP, or both. This outdated and harsh policy deprives struggling families of nutrition assistance and pushes them even deeper into poverty at precisely the moment when they are seeking to regain their footing. According to The Sentencing Project, in the twelve states with the most punitive policies, an estimated 180,000 women were subject to the TANF ban in 2013. The REDEEM Act would lift this ban for people who were convicted for drug use or possession. (The ban would remain in effect for people convicted of drug distribution crimes.)

The REDEEM Act is in its infancy as a bill, but as a truly bipartisan effort, it seems to offer hope for those seeking real reform. Perhaps convicts will one day be punished by having to serve their sentences, but not beyond them.

—Drew Whitcup, Zeteo Contributing Writer

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