For more than a year, the United States has been in the midst of an economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. While all people have been impacted by the crisis in some way, certain communities and groups of people have felt the brunt more than others, including young people, people with criminal records, and—at the intersection of those two groups—young people with criminal records. One reason that young people with records have likely been disproportionately impacted by the economic crisis is because of collateral consequences—the often lifelong barriers that accompany a conviction—which can prevent people with records from getting jobs, housing, and education. As we recognize the second Second Chance Month of the COVID pandemic, and as the nation looks towards recovery, it’s critical that legislative solutions like Ban the Box and record clearing also come to the forefront, so that everyone has an opportunity to find and keep gainful employment.
By mid-April 2020, 16 million people had filed for unemployment. At the time, schools and businesses had just begun shutting their doors and fewer than 25,000 people had died from COVID. Now, more than a year later, nearly 575,000 people have died in the United States, and there are nearly 9.5 million fewer jobs in the economy than there were in February 2020. However, in recent months, with a more competent federal government in place, an aggressive vaccine rollout underway, and several relief packages passed by Congress—including the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan—it appears that the nation is finally on the cusp of exiting one of the darkest periods of modern American history.
There is no question that the economic crisis—much like the Great Recession of 2008-2009—has hurt some communities more than others. Workers of color are over-represented in many of the low wage sectors that suffered high rates of layoffs early in the pandemic—more than 50 percent of Latinx people between the ages of 18 and 29 reported that they or someone in their household lost a job or had their pay cut during the first few months of the economic crisis. As the nation moves forward, our elected leaders must ensure that those who are most vulnerable are included in the recovery process. This means focusing attention on young adults, who had higher unemployment rates than the general population even prior to the pandemic, and especially on young people with criminal records, who face significant hurdles to achieving economic mobility. Including this population in economic recovery should also mean pursuing legislative fixes, including Ban the Box and record clearing (e.g., sealing and expungement) statutes that may not be typically thought of as economic recovery proposals, which can be crucial to the economic success of people with past justice-involvement.
Millennials and Gen Z Historically have Higher Rates of Unemployment and Less Savings
The COVID-19 pandemic impacted everyone, but its impact has not been even. In the United States, Black, Latinx, and American Indian or Alaska Native people have been more likely to contract COVID and even more likely to be hospitalized or die from it. Indeed, the COVID pandemic has magnified and exacerbated the existing health inequities in our nation.
Similarly, the economic fallout of the COVID pandemic has not been distributed evenly, and it has magnified and exacerbated existing economic inequities.
Historically, young people have faced higher rates of unemployment than the national average, especially during economic turmoil. Unemployment rates for 16-24 year olds rose from 8.4 percent in spring of 2019 to 24.4 percent in spring of 2020, compared to 2.8 percent and 11.3 percent, respectively, for people ages 25 and older.
Young parents, aged 18-34, have had their careers and wages jeopardized by the lack of child care available during the pandemic: 4 in 10 young voters specifically stated that lack of child care and schooling has put them at risk of losing their jobs and have decreased their wages. Additionally, half of young people indicated that their work hours were cut or wages reduced, 38 percent reported losing their jobs, and 40 percent said they were falling behind on rent or mortgage. In all three categories, young people experienced these rates higher than any other age group.
Young People with Records are Particularly Vulnerable
Young people as a whole are less likely to have savings and more likely to be unemployed than older adults, but young people with records are particularly vulnerable to economic insecurity as criminal records have been shown to reduce employment prospects and reduce wages for those who do find a job.
A 2009 study found that a criminal conviction reduced a person’s chances of a job offer or callback by nearly 50 percent, and the negative effects were double for Black applicants. The impacts of a conviction may be most pronounced among those who were formerly incarcerated. In 2008, the most recent year for which data is available, formerly incarcerated people faced an unemployment rate of 27 percent, nearly five times higher than the national rate, and 30 percent of formerly incarcerated people remain unemployed up to two years after being released. The widespread use of background checks during the hiring process, which nine in ten employers conduct, is one reason that this is the case. When criminal records are a determining factor during the hiring process, employment opportunities for millions of people are eliminated before they even walk through the door.
These barriers to employment and economic stability are one example of collateral consequences at work. Collateral consequences are additional punishments, beyond court-ordered sentences such as incarceration or community supervision that accompany a criminal conviction. Collateral consequences can take the form of legal and regulatory restrictions, state and federal laws, or societal norms that stigmatize criminal records and people with criminal records. These barriers make long term stability and self-determination more difficult for the people they impact. Housing, education, voting, government assistance, and even healthcare can be jeopardized far after exoneration or sentence completion. Regardless of when and how a person enters the system, these often-lifetime repercussions can limit success, potential, and dignity.
Gen Z and Millenials are over-represented in the criminal legal system. Young people aged 18 to 35 make up about 30 percent of the U.S. adult population, but more than 50 percent of adult arrests and 40 percent of prison admissions. Young people with records are hit hard by collateral consequences, since they have the vast majority of their “working years” ahead of them and since collateral consequences can block young people from obtaining the very things (housing, education, employment) they need to stabilize their lives and move forward.
Crafting an Economic Recovery that Includes Young People with Records
In April of 2020, every state and D.C. reached the highest point of unemployment since the Great Depression. These disparities were even greater for people of color. Black workers faced unemployment rates of 16.7 percent compared to 14.2 percent for their white counterparts; unemployment rates were even greater for Latinx workers at a rate of 18.9 percent. During times of crisis—economic, health, or otherwise—the most vulnerable members of society suffer most.
Data for unemployment rates for justice-involved people during the pandemic still aren’t entirely clear, however, job placement data from reentry organizations can help paint a picture. The Center for Employment Opportunities, one of the largest reentry organizations in the country, focuses on job placement for formerly incarcerated people. In April 2019, the organization made 368 job placements; in April of 2020 they only made 140. Considering that unemployment in April 2020 was at its highest since the Great Depression, there is a high likelihood that justice-involved youth faced an even greater battle finding employment at the height of the economic fallout than older adults and non-justice-involved people.
In recent months, the economy has begun adding back jobs, with the most recent jobs report showing 916,000 new jobs added this past month and the unemployment rate dropping down to 6 percent. However, Black and Brown communities continue to see a slower economic recovery: the unemployment rate for Black and Latinx Americans are 9.6 percent and 7.9 percent, respectively.
The Biden-Harris administration has taken several significant steps to include justice-involved people in the nation’s economic recovery efforts so far. For example:
- Eligibility for PPP loans was expanded by eliminating the exclusions for the vast majority of business owners with prior justice-involvement, including most of those who are currently on probation or parole.
- The America Rescue Plan included provisions such as COVID mitigation strategies for incarcerated people and making currently incarcerated Americans eligible to receive a stimulus check.
- The American Jobs Plan urged Congress to invest in job training programs for justice-involved youth and formerly incarcerated individuals.
While these initial steps are important, more must be done by Congress and state legislatures to address the needs of young people with records.
As part of economic recovery efforts, Congress and state legislatures should:
- Enact or expand existing statutes that allow for record clearing in the form of sealing, expungement, or set-asides. A study by the University of Michigan found that clearing a criminal record increased someone’s likelihood of finding employment by 11 percent and increased wages by more than 20 percent. The authors of the study note that increased employment alone cannot account for the full increase in earnings, suggesting that not only are more people able to find jobs after clearing their record, but they’re also able to find better paying jobs. The bipartisan and bicameral Clean Slate Act would be another step forward in removing barriers for young people in finding equitable employment, housing, and education by automatically sealing low-level federal drug convictions and sealing federal arrest records for individuals who haven’t been convicted of a crime.
- Fund state and local employment placement programs specifically centering and focusing on justice-involved youth. Thirty percent of formerly incarcerated people remain unemployed up to two years after being released. If lawmakers truly want to increase employment, they must focus on communities that are facing the most unemployment.
- Expand “Ban the Box” measures at the local and state level to reduce the impact that a criminal conviction has on employment, and ensure the Fair Chance Act to Limit Criminal Background inquiries by Federal Contractors is implemented with fidelity in December 2021. One study found that Ban the Box legislation increases the chances of formerly incarcerated people to find employment by 30 percent.
Collateral consequences prevent many people from achieving basic life milestones and long term success. This is the reality for the 70 million to 100 million people who have a criminal record, and young people, and in particular BIPOC young people, are disproportionately affected. These consequences make young people especially vulnerable in a society where they already face challenges disproportionate to the rest of the country. By mitigating the impacts of a criminal record on young adults and by taking action to shrink the criminal legal system, we can uplift young people who are disproportionately impacted by the criminal legal system. Young people should not spend the remainder of their lives struggling to find employment, or failing to thrive, because of a criminal record. Lawmakers must act to create pathways to success for our country’s youth.