Spotlight Exclusives

The Need for Pathways of Opportunity for Convicted Individuals

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Over the past 30 years, major cities across the U.S. lost tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs and, for a period of time, experienced a marked increase in crime. Instead of advancing policies that would lead to increased job creation, lawmakers responded to this phenomenon by enacting harsh, punitive policies aimed at being “tough on crime,” which resulted in the incarceration and criminalization of millions of Americans, including a disproportionate number of people of color. 
As incarceration increased, we failed to provide convicted individuals with the tools needed to succeed once they left the criminal justice system, and, unsurprisingly, there is now strong evidence to show that growing incarceration has significantly increased poverty. In order to help convicted individuals attain economic security and reduce recidivism, we must address the multitude of barriers that exist post-conviction.
Criminal conviction leaves citizens, who have already endured the punishment required by law, vulnerable to being barred outright from certain professions, and more frequently leaves them subject to discrimination in employment based solely on the existence of a criminal conviction. In many states where there is no sealing or expungement of criminal records,  job applicants must check a box indicating that they were convicted of a crime even if the conviction is ten, twenty, or thirty years old.
Increased educational attainment might help some individuals overcome employment barriers, but the lifetime consequences of conviction extend to education as well. According to the Center for Community Alternatives, nearly sixty percent of colleges and universities nationwide screen students for criminal records during the application process. In some cases, applicants are asked whether they۪ve ever been arrestedeven if the arrest did not lead to a conviction. Institutions that request this information often do so without appreciation for the complexities of criminal records and with no thoughtful process for evaluating the impact a criminal record may or may not have on a particular student۪s ability to successfully engage in the educational process.
For convicted individuals who are able to access higher learning opportunities, yet another barrier arises: they are ineligible for federal Pell Grants. Established by the late Senator Claiborne Pell, the grants allow peopleincluding those inside correctional facilitieswho cannot afford college to access post-secondary education. Incarcerated students were made ineligible for Pell Grants in 1994 under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, a contradiction of Senator Pell۪s legacy of helping ensure that everyone could attend college. After eligibility was removed, the number of higher education programs in prisons dropped from 350 to 8, nationwide. The original version of the 2004 Second Chance Act would have restored Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated students; however, the final version of the Second Chance Act did not include this expansion of opportunity. 
At the same time that living-wage employment has required higher skill levels, educationparticularly higher educationhas increasingly become the most under-appreciated, underused, and under-supported tool offered inside of correctional facilities. This has happened despite the fact that numerous studies have proven that education is the most reliable predictor of reduced criminal recidivism. Reduced criminal recidivism and educational attainment increase one۪s prospects for securing full-time employment, enabling individuals to stay out of poverty and support themselves and their families. 
The harmful impact of lifetime restrictions based on criminal convictions reaches beyond education and employment, affecting innocent children and entire families. Even now, through an approved amendment to the Senate-passed farm bill, Congress is attempting to pass legislation that would bar people convicted of certain crimes from receiving SNAP benefits (food stamps) for life, no matter how long they live or how poor they may become. Congress would have certain people and their families risk going hungry as a means of perpetual punishment for an act they may have committed decades in the past.
These types of punitive responses to people who have made serious mistakes but have already repaid their debts to society do nothing to solve the problems, like unemployment, that lead to crime, and they hinder rather than promote rehabilitation and successful integration into the community. At least 95 percent of incarcerated people will eventually return to the community, and a substantial number of people convicted of crimes never leave the community because they are sentenced to probation or some other alternative. 
People with criminal convictions live among us daily. It is up to us to decide how best to create systems and policies that promote public safety. Making it difficult for people to access opportunity and contribute to society is contrary to that goal, and contrary to the economic health of our country. 
To print a PDF version of this document, click here. 
Vivian Nixon is the executive director of the College and Community Fellowship. Dallas Pell, the daughter of the late Senator Claiborne Pell, is a board member. 
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