The Wall Street Journal today states that roughly 30 percent of Americans have a criminal record of some sort. We’ve been over this before, but let’s take this opportunity to discuss exactly why the figure is so horrible. No matter how many times you’ve heard it, 30 percent of 318 million people may feel like an abstract concept, difficult to wrap your head around. The havoc wreaked upon those tens of millions of lives, however, couldn’t be more concrete.
The U.S. contains just five percent of the world’s population, and yet 20 percent of the world’s prisoners. Something has gone badly awry when a nation is branding nearly one out of three of its citizens as criminals. Now let’s look at the demographics of that 30-percent slice of Americans who have a criminal record. According to a Center for American Progress report that’s cited in today’s WSJ column, over 60 percent of the people currently imprisoned in America are people of color, and black men are six times as likely to be locked up as their white counterparts. The same report states that 80 to 90 percent of the country’s criminal defendants are poor enough to qualify for a public defender—meaning that theoretically, they can not afford a lawyer on their own. Assuming that the prison population looks something like the population of arrestees, the 30 percent is largely poor and not white.
Then there are the terrors of prison itself, which are well documented. But consider what happens to a person after they’re released from jail, or even if they never go to jail in the first place. Widespread and legal employment discrimination exists against people with criminal records in the U.S., as does discrimination for access to things like public housing and federal assistance for college tuition. Even if you’ve been arrested but not convicted of a crime, that arrest may remain on record and hinder your ability to get hired. If you’re convicted of a felony, your chances of procuring essentials like housing and a higher education are even worse.
Let’s say you’re a teenaged black male living in public housing in an impoverished neighborhood. Your local public schools are far inferior to those in wealthy neighborhoods, and you’re financially cut off from private schooling. Without a good education, your opportunities for economic betterment are few, so you turn to selling drugs. Because drug enforcement across the country favors arrests in poor and nonwhite communities, you’re arrested outside your apartment. You become one of the 30 percent.
You do your time, and when you get out you’re eager to turn your life around. But that isn’t so easy. Depending on the state in which you live and the nature of your conviction, you may be barred from living in public housing—the only housing you can afford. Employers may be allowed to ask about your criminal history and disqualify you for telling the truth. If you have a felony conviction, what meager chance you had of attending college to begin with may be demolished by reduced access to federal loans. You’ve got no place to live, you’ve tried and failed to make a living legally. What other option do you have besides selling drugs again? Eventually, you go back to jail, and as a repeat offender your chances of a felony conviction are higher. The process repeats itself.
Meanwhile, the white college senior across town has been selling coke to partygoers for his entire four-year tenure. The cops don’t patrol his dorm building like they do your housing project, and they don’t make Terry stops in his upscale neighborhood like they do in your ghetto. You’ve committed the same crimes, but he never encounters the police, never gets wrapped up in the criminal justice system. You are one of the 30 percent. He is not. He goes on to become a doctor, a lawyer, a banker, a cop.