As many as 1 in 3 people in the United States have criminal records, creating barriers across several domains. Certain groups in particular—including people of color, sexual minorities, transgender and nonbinary people, people with disabilities, people with serious mental illness, and people living in poverty—experience disproportionate, negative impacts related to the criminal legal system. These disparities reflect discriminatory policies that fuel systemic inequalities, burdening families for generations and perpetuating a cycle of poverty. Justice-involved people face more than 44,000 legal sanctions that can prevent them from getting a job, obtaining licenses, attaining and maintaining housing, qualifying for public assistance, pursuing higher education, engaging in civic participation, changing immigration status, and receiving custody of a minor, among many other restrictions. Additionally, people with criminal records face discrimination: 9 in 10 employers, 4 in 5 landlords, and 3 in 5 colleges and universities use background checks in hiring decisions. These impacts lead to higher rates of homelessness and unemployment, lower cumulative earnings, and difficulties pursing educational opportunities; they also create barriers to community integration.
The consequences of having a criminal record do not occur in isolation but have direct and substantial impacts for families and communities. These barriers undermine the five pillars of family well-being—income, savings and assets, education, housing, and family strength and stability—and, in turn, negatively affect family cohesion. As a result, people with records lose access to opportunities, driving and keeping their families in poverty across generations. In order to develop comprehensive policy solutions, lawmakers must consider these multigenerational impacts of a criminal record. This column explores in depth these particular ramifications for families and outlines current and needed efforts to mitigate these long-terms impacts.
The impacts of criminal records across generations
According to a prior Center for American Progress analysis, nearly half of all children in the United States—about 33 million to 36.5 million—have at least one parent with a criminal record. Of these, 5.1 million children have lived the adverse childhood experience of having at least one parent incarcerated during their childhood. Family separation as a result of parental incarceration takes a toll on a child’s social, emotional, physical, and educational well-being as well as on housing stability. These children are six times more likely to be justice involved during their youth—especially if their mother has been incarcerated. Second-generation prisoners, or adults who had a parent incarcerated, experience more adversities in life, exposure to violence, and social and emotional difficulties that lead to worse outcomes for individual well-being. The impacts of having a criminal record and incarceration do not disappear after one generation; rather, they linger and pose residual consequences that reproduce disadvantage for their children’s children and beyond. A person’s experiences with childhood poverty as a result of having a parent with a criminal record often lead to poverty during their adult lives and of their children, continuing the multigenerational cycle.
Half of all U.S. adults have an immediate family member who has been incarcerated, with even higher rates among people of color and low-income individuals. When a parent is incarcerated, the loss of support affects not just children, but grandparents and other relatives as well. As a result, extended family members may share custody and take on more child caretaking roles. When a parent is incarcerated, family income drops significantly, and families often obtain little to no increase in financial or material support when assuming child care roles. This lack of support and loss of resources creates a burden for family members across generations and pushes both older adults and children deeper into poverty.
A person’s criminal record affects their family members, including older adults and adults with additional supports and needs. If a person with a criminal record experiences restrictions to housing, benefits, employment, and other resources that determine financial and family stability, this may increase experiences of poverty for their own parents and other family members that depend on them for essential resources or caretaking. Households are increasingly becoming multigenerational and inclusive of extended family. Families of color and families with foreign-born members are more likely to live in multigenerational households, which often increases household income and lowers poverty rates. Women, who are increasingly primary household providers, and people of color often assume intergenerational familial caregiving, such as for aging parents. These kinds of families are more at risk of being pushed into poverty if an adult member has a criminal record.
Removing barriers and moving forward
A powerful remedy to enable people with criminal records and their families to move forward is providing accessible record-clearing. A recent empirical study found that within two years of having a criminal record cleared, wages increased by 25 percent on average, and previously unemployed people were more likely to have found work. Record-clearing also reduces recidivism—the likelihood of future incarceration—and ultimately lowers the prison population.
But many people who look to clear their criminal record face obstacles in doing so. Some policies restrict the clearing of certain records, such as one that contains multiple minor convictions. Certain procedures and restrictions , such as petition-based systems and limited court and public access to records, can prevent or delay record-clearing processes. Even when eligible, other barriers, such as lack of transportation for in-person requirements, long decision wait times in court, lack of clarity on eligibility requirements for record-clearing, and immigration status, can prevent people from pursuing record-clearing processes. Financial costs from court and attorneys fees, for example, prevent low-income people from pursuing record-clearing. One analysis showed that only 7 percent of people who are eligible for record expungement had their record cleared within five years of reaching eligibility.
Efforts exist to expand and streamline access to record-clearing in order to alleviate and counteract some of the collateral consequences of criminal records. Some state, county, and grassroots organizations have provided free and accessible assistance in record-clearing, such as filing for expungement petitions. Expungement and other record-clearing clinics and events, such as those in Illinois, Ohio, Oregon, and Tennessee, provide opportunities for people with criminalized records to take the first steps to minimize barriers and the actions needed to provide a more stable future for themselves and their families. These efforts make a tremendous difference and have positive impacts on community integration and well-being as well as remove various barriers that result from criminalized records. However, they do not come close to meeting the incredibly high need that exists.
Thankfully, there is momentum for more widespread legislative action to further reduce restrictions and clear records. Some advocacy groups are pushing lawmakers to remove barriers to record-clearing, such as reducing wait times; removing court fines, fees, and probation costs; and reducing or eliminating restrictions based on multiple minor convictions. Bipartisan support has emerged to not just address some of these concerns and expand the eligibility for record-clearing, but also utilize technology to streamline and expand access. For example, in 2018, Pennsylvania became the first state to automate record-clearing through the bipartisan Clean Slate Act, which enables automatic sealing of qualifying misdemeanors 10 years after a person’s last convictions. Since the law took effect in June 2019, 31 million cases are being sealed via this automation. States such as Utah and California, which will be implementing variations of clean slate laws in the next year, hope to see large successes as well, and a growing number of states have worked in bipartisan coalitions to introduce similar legislation.
The collateral consequences of having a criminal record create barriers, restrict opportunities, and undermine the mobility and success for families across generations. Policy frameworks and approaches that aim to reduce the barriers that push families deeper into poverty—such as increased supports for families, reduction and elimination of legal restrictions as collateral consequences, and record-clearing initiatives—must extend past considering the impacts on just a single person, to include their children, parents, and other relatives. Comprehensive multigenerational approaches that invest in the whole family are essential in providing solutions that interrupt intergenerational cycles of poverty.
Jaboa Lake is a senior policy analyst for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.
The author would like to thank Sarah Figgatt for fact-checking, as well as the CAP Poverty, Criminal Justice Reform, Women’s Initiative, Race and Ethnicity Policy, LGBTQ, Immigration, and Editorial teams for their review and contributions.