There are a whole bunch of things that people who have been convicted of crimes have to worry about and the rest of us do not. The American Bar Association recently released a list of more than 38,000 punitive provisions that affect people convicted of crimes (38,000!), including everything from housing and welfare laws to licensing for certain professions.
One of the biggest challenges for folks getting released from prison – or even people who are only arrested for crimes – is finding a job. In today’s job market, this is a struggle for just about everybody, but for people who can’t get through a background check unscathed, getting a job is incredibly difficult. At the same time, an income is especially crucial for people who are barred from Section 8 affordable housing, unemployment benefits, etc.
A recent Op-Ed for the New York Times argues that we should put caps on the length of time that criminal records are available. In some states, for example, misdemeanors are sealed after five years while most felonies are sealed after ten. The emphasis in the editorial is on making things more equitable for people who were convicted of only one infraction many years ago.
It’s pretty nuts that we still bar some of these folks from jobs today, but we also need to be thinking about the people who have been convicted of multiple crimes, and more recently. Anyone who is getting out of prison, even with RAP sheets as long as their arms, needs employment and/or financial support. If we aren’t willing to think about providing resources necessary to help people stay on the up-and-up after release then we may as well not release them. (By the way, I don’t think not releasing them is a good option.)
And just to end on a personal note, I’ll share an anecdote about my time at the transitional housing facility in Vermont:
I was asked to help one of the residents draw up a budget: weekly, monthly, etc. He was having a hard time paying rent which, at this place, was $75/week including three meals a day. He worked full time, so they were wondering why he couldn’t pay the bills.
After going through his expenses and balancing that with what he was making working full-time at a Wendy’s overnight drive through window (the kind of work available for someone with a criminal record) we calculated that, assuming he made it to all his shifts and if no unusual expenses came up, he could afford to maintain his half-a-pack-a-day smoking costs and still come out ahead ten dollars every week. Ten dollars! With a full-time job! If I was working full-time at a Wendy’s drive through, I’d probably expect to have a little more spending cash myself, frankly.