Mitigating the Impacts of a Criminal Record on Young Adults in the U.S.

An inmate in Denver receives voter registration information in September 2018.

This is column is published jointly by the Center for American Progress and Generation Progress.

America’s young adults are overrepresented in the United States’ criminal justice system and are more vulnerable than older adults to the collateral consequences of their criminal record. Young people—those ages 18 to 35—make up only 30 percent of the U.S. adult population, yet they represent 60 percent of adult arrests and 42 percent of adult prison admissions. For those involved in the criminal justice system at an earlier age, the lifelong consequences of a record can persist far after they have been exonerated or completed their sentence. It can also hinder their path toward a life of success before they’ve had the chance to reach their full potential—and these barriers to essential life opportunities, such as education and employment, can have an impact on the life outcomes of both those with a record and future generations.

As more young people continue to deal with the lifetime repercussions of a criminal record, many policymakers and lawmakers are recognizing a dire need for measures to help reduce the collateral consequences. This column delves into the harmful impact of a record for young adults and identifies several practical solutions that are advancing across the nation to help guide justice-involved people toward a successful future.

Effects of mass incarceration on young adults

The collateral consequences of a criminal record can create many long-lasting setbacks for justice-involved individuals, especially young adults who still have the vast majority of their lives ahead of them. For example, many are denied education credentials and employment opportunities that are often necessary to succeed in life. Studies show: “Formerly incarcerated people are nearly twice as likely to have no high school credential” and “8 times less likely to complete college” than the general public. As for employment opportunities, the average unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated individuals is 27 percent—six times larger than the current pre-COVID-19 national average of 4.4 percent. Even after obtaining stable employment, their earning potential is drastically reduced: According to a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, “By age 48, the typical [formerly incarcerated person] will have earned $179,000 less than if he had never been incarcerated.” These collateral consequences have a longer-term impact for young people than for older adults: The working-age group in the United States is 15 to 64 years old, meaning formerly incarcerated young adults still have 60 percent to 90 percent of their working years ahead of them.

A criminal record can also impede opportunities for professional licenses, housing, and other basic life essentials. The number of barriers imposed on justice-involved individuals after they are released sets them so far back that they are often pushed toward a life of poverty or recidivism. Formerly incarcerated individuals are 10 times more likely than the general public to end up homeless, and those who are still unemployed only two months after reentry are twice as likely as those who are employed to recidivate.

These impacts are detrimental to both justice-involved individuals and their children: A parent’s struggle to build economic security and family stability can significantly affect a child’s mental development, education, future employment opportunity, and overall welfare. Young people in the United States are more likely than any other age group to have young children. With an estimated 33 million to 36.5 million children in the United States with at least one parent with a criminal record, nearly half of America’s youth population will be denied a fair chance at a successful future before they even reach adulthood themselves.

How to reduce the collateral consequences of a criminal record

A criminal record should never amount to a lifetime of setbacks and challenges. Yet, far too many young adults are struggling to overcome the hurdles that follow their criminal record long after they’ve completed their sentence. Although the situation is dire, several policy solutions can help to reduce the collateral consequences of a record and situate young adults toward a path of success.

Reduce the number of people involved with the criminal justice system

Efforts to shrink the entire criminal justice system would help to mitigate collateral consequences. Today, an estimated 70 million to 100 million Americans are living with a criminal record. More than 2 million are incarcerated, and another 4.4 million are either on parole or probation. By reducing the number of justice-involved people, more young adults would be granted a larger opportunity to succeed and to become contributing members of society.

In the last few years, a number of states have implemented reform measures to end mass incarceration and reduce the impact of collateral consequences. California, Delaware, and Oklahoma have each passed measures that either reduce or repeal sentence enhancements. Some states, such as Illinois and New York, have enacted expungement measures for marijuana offenses, while others, such as Nevada and Iowa, have moved to ban their corrections agencies from contracting with private prisons. These solutions are significant and will help deter unnecessary damages imposed by the criminal justice system.

Institute automatic record clearance

Background checks are often used to make determinations in a hiring process, education opportunities and funding, and housing applications. As the Center for American Progress has previously written, “[I]n the digital era, with nearly 9 in 10 employers, 4 in 5 landlords, and 3 in 5 colleges now using background checks, any record—no matter how old or minor—can put employment, housing, education, and other basics permanently out of reach.” Most states have enacted some measure to expunge or seal certain records through a court petition. However, for many individuals, the process is confusing, time-consuming, and expensive.

Automatic record clearance—also known as a clean slate policy—provides another opportunity for justice-involved people to have their record cleared once they have completed their sentence. The major benefit of clean slate is that it is automatic; individuals are not forced to go through the grueling process of petitioning the court to have their records cleared. A study from the University of Michigan found that once a record is cleared, individuals are 11 percent more likely to find employment and can increase their wages by 22 percent just one year after their record has been cleared. Pennsylvania and Utah have both passed clean slate legislation in recent years, and several others are on their way toward implementing their own record-clearing systems.

Ban the box

“Ban the box” measures—first championed by All of Us or None, a national civil rights movement of formerly incarcerated people and their families—offer another way to reduce the impact of a criminal record on employment opportunities and help justice-involved people enter the labor force. These laws prohibit an employer from asking about an applicant’s criminal record in the initial hiring stages, allowing a job candidate to be considered without the stigma of an arrest or conviction. Many states and localities, including Washington, D.C., have passed ban the box measures, and this year, Congress passed the Fair Chance Act, which “bans the box” for federal employment and contracts. Although helpful, ban the box policies are not a one-stop solution. Employers can still review an applicant’s criminal record later in the hiring process, and the policy does not always apply for private employers. The measure alone does not completely eliminate barriers that come with having a criminal record but can help to reduce them significantly.

Conclusion

The future of this country heavily depends on the advancements made by today’s young people. Far too many individuals in the criminal justice system are forced to spend the vast majority of their lives struggling to attain economic stability long after they’ve completed their sentence, and those around them suffer just as greatly. It’s time to address the effects of mass incarceration on young adults and advance justice reform efforts that not only reduce the impact of a criminal record but also create a pathway to success for justice-involved individuals.

Akua Amaning is an associate director for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress. Brent J. Cohen is the executive director of Generation Progress and the vice president for Youth Engagement at the Center.