Washington, D.C. — The criminal justice system needs comprehensive and multigenerational policy solutions that lessen the lasting impact of a criminal record for young adults and the families of justice-involved individuals. These are the main highlights of two columns and a fact sheet released today by the Center for American Progress and Generation Progress in recognition of Second Chance Month.

The columns emphasize the need to shrink the oversize criminal justice system so that fewer people feel its impacts and to mitigate the collateral consequences that come with legal system involvement. The coronavirus pandemic has only highlighted these impacts, exposing enormous flaws in the criminal justice system that have made incarcerated people and people with records uniquely vulnerable to a public health crisis such as this one.

For the 70 million to 100 million Americans with a criminal record, the access to life essentials, such as employment, housing, and health care, are especially hard to come by when trying to successfully reenter society.

“This current health pandemic has shown how important it is to guarantee that all communities have access to basic life necessities, no matter what setbacks they have experienced in their past,” said Akua Amaning, associate director for Criminal Justice Reform at CAP and co-author of one of the columns. “Second Chance Month is an opportunity to bring awareness to the needs of justice-involved individuals and to help create pathways toward a successful future for those who have paid their debts to society.”

“Young adults are overrepresented at nearly every stage of the criminal legal system: People ages 18 to 35 make up about 30 percent of the U.S. adult population but more than 60 percent of adult arrests and 42 percent of prison admissions,” said Brent J. Cohen, executive director of Generation Progress and vice president for Youth Engagement at CAP, and co-author of one of the columns. “The collateral consequences that accompany arrest or conviction records—including barriers that prevent people from attaining education, employment, and housing—often last a lifetime. This disproportionately affects young people, who have the vast majority of their lives still ahead of them.”

“A criminal record can become a life sentence to poverty—not only for the person with a record, but for their families as well,” said Jaboa Lake, senior policy analyst for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at CAP and author of one of the columns. “The impact of having a criminal record lingers through generations, creating educational, health, and economic challenges for the record-holder’s children’s children and beyond.”

Key findings in the columns include:

  • Young people, who represent 60 percent of adult arrests and 42 percent of adult prison admissions, are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and more susceptible to the consequences of a record.
  • The impacts of even a minor record can last a lifetime—well past the completion of a sentence or other imposed requirements—and often affect the well-being of future generations.
  • A criminal record of an adult can be just as devastating for immediate family members as it is for the record-holding individual. Nearly half of all children have at least one parent with a criminal record, barring them from opportunities at a young age.
  • Grandparents and other relatives are often forced to take on burdens as well, affecting both past and future generations.
  • Solutions to reducing the collateral consequences of a criminal record—such as expungements and sealing of criminal records—should address the cycle of devastation on families.

Read the column: “Mitigating the Impacts of a Criminal Record on Young Adults in the US” by Akua Amaning and Brent J. Cohen

Read the column: “Criminal Records Create Cycles of Multigenerational Poverty” by Jaboa Lake

View the fact sheet: “Expunging and Clearing Criminal Records: How Jurisdictions Can Expand Access to Second Chances” by Kenny Lo

Related resources:

For more information or to speak with an expert, please contact Emily Leach at eleach@americanprogress.org.

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