Boost the Economy by Clearing Criminal Records

Unemployed workers fill out applications at a town job fair.

Every day, the Aspen Institute sends out a newsletter called “The Five Best Ideas of the Day” — it’s awesome. Some days are definitely better than others, but in general there’s a cool life hack or smart policy suggestion that makes you stop and think a little more about the world around you.

Yesterday, the daily edition included an article written by CityLab that discussed how expunging criminal records can help bridge socioeconomic gaps and boost the economy in America.

There are more than 70 million Americans living with criminal records.

The article is worth the read if for no other reason than it brings to light the fact that there are more than 70 million Americans living with criminal records — just over 20% of the population. For many, these records are with them for 30 or 40 years, making it extremely difficult to find jobs or apply for loans. They are also deeply symptomatic of America’s criminal justice system, fueling poverty in African American and Hispanic communities and strangling any hope of real opportunity or social mobility.

CityLab points specifically to the story of an older man who worked in a factory for much of his career. Eventually he was reaching an age where he knew he wouldn’t be able to keep doing the job, so he began school to become a radiology technician.

But he didn’t get his license. A conviction for not paying child support in the 1990s showed up on his background check and the licensing board refused him.

Nobody is trying to play down the importance of paying child care, but it strikes me as ironic that paying child care would prevent somebody from getting a job…so they could pay the child care.

Typically, expungement fees range from $500 for misdemeanors to $5,000 for felonies, plus any legal costs.

Most states offer expungement laws that allow offenders to wipe their records clear of misdemeanors and certain felony charges after a waiting period. But these laws vary greatly and many people either don’t understand how to go about getting their records expunged or lack the resources to do so. Typically, expungement fees range from $500 for misdemeanors to $5,000 for felonies, plus any legal costs. That can be a major hurdle for people who have spotty employment histories, not to mention a disincentive for those unwilling or unable to find that kind of money.

There are many initiatives such as Ban the Box — urging employers to remove questions about criminal history from job applications — and increasing attempts by local, state, and federal governments to adopt fairer hiring practices. To date, more than 150 local governments in the U.S. have changed their hiring practices to level the field for those with criminal records.

But the real challenge continues to be in changing private sector hiring practices and opening those opportunities to folks with a criminal background. Some areas of Kentucky have a 20 to 30 percent unemployment rate because, even though there are jobs, local people just can’t fill them with their prior convictions. To give you a sense of how massive this loss is, a recent study put the national cost of the employment penalty for former prisoners and those convicted of felonies at $78 to $87 billion annually.

A recent study put the national cost of the employment penalty for former prisoners and those convicted of felonies at $78 to $87 billion annually.

The result of all this is a perpetuation of poverty and social marginalization by America’s criminal justice system, with particularly devastating consequences for African Americans communities where 1 in 6 males has been or can expect to be incarcerated at some point. The positive is that this time there are clear and obvious solutions, backed by studies that prove they can fundamentally help to bridge the overwhelming inequalities this system creates.

Social change and policy implementation take time. But everyone can do their part by talking about smart solutions and sharing them with the people around us. Share this, share the CityLab piece, or tell someone about what you read. Dissemination of information is the first step to making something happen. It’s a small step, but if it means that maybe what you say will change someone else’s mind the next time they’re looking to hire someone, then it’s worth a shot.