How The System Punishes Children If Their Parent Has A Criminal Record

CREDIT: ANDREW BREINER/SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: ANDREW BREINER/SHUTTERSTOCK

Ms. Matos (who didn’t want to use her first name) used to make enough to support her three children at her customer service job with a health insurance company. But in 2006, she says she was confronted and assaulted by police while recording an officer beating someone up in her neighborhood. The incident left her with a fractured hand, bruises all over her body, and scars that remain today, she says.

It also left her with the lasting effects of a criminal record. “Even though I had done nothing wrong, I was convicted of ‘disorderly conduct’ — a third-degree misdemeanor — and sentenced to six months of probation,” she said, as told to Talk Poverty (an organization that is part of the Center for American Progress (CAP), which houses ThinkProgress). “I didn’t do any jail time, but I was left with a criminal record.”

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That’s when things started to change. She took medical leave from her job to recover from the incident, but when she tried to return she was forced to re-apply and check the box asking whether she had ever been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor. She wasn’t welcomed back.

She says she hasn’t been able to find steady work since then. Customer service jobs turn her away for not having a clean background. To get by, she’s currently working part-time for her brother’s small trucking business, earning just $150 a week. “The company doesn’t have enough business to pay me even a fraction of what I was earning before,” she said. “So I’ve been forced to turn to food stamps to keep me and my family afloat.”

What Matos has gone through since her run-in with police has had deeply personal impacts. But her story is common across the country. According to a new report from CAP, somewhere between 33 million and 36.5 million children now have at least one parent with a criminal record — nearly half of all of the country’s children. And the consequences for their parents and their own wellbeing are often dire.

Incarceration comes with big costs for families. In one survey of families with incarcerated members, more than two-thirds said their financial stability was damaged and the same share had trouble meeting basic needs. When one parent is incarcerated, the rest of the family’s income drops suddenly thanks to the loss of that parent’s earnings. Nearly half of formerly incarcerated people in the survey had contributed half or more of the family income before they went to prison. Incarceration also takes a toll through court fees and the cost of visits and phone calls, which pushes many families into debt.

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Costs continue once people leave prison as well: research has found that formerly incarcerated men, for example, make 40 percent less a year than if they hadn’t been incarcerated. Incarceration can also be a barrier to employment: about 60 percent of those who have spent time in prison are still unemployed a year after they’re released.

But people like Matos don’t even have to go to prison to experience negative effects. Just having a criminal record can be enough. Nearly 90 percent of employers use criminal background checks on job applicants, and even misdemeanors and arrests without conviction can be a barrier to employment. A study in New York City found that job applicants were half as likely to be called back or offered a job if they had a criminal history. Many states also ban people with certain kinds of convictions from getting licensed for more than 800 occupations. A study by the National Institute of Justice found that having an arrest at some point during a person’s life diminishes her job prospects more than any other employment stigma.

The effects ripple beyond just employment. Matos is somewhat lucky to be able to rely on food stamps to get by: People with felony drug convictions are banned for life from receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits or welfare.

Housing can also be jeopardized by interacting with the justice system. As the CAP report notes, “Even a minor criminal record can affect the stability of a family’s housing situation, both through loss of income leading to eviction or foreclosure and through overly harsh ‘one strike and you’re out’ public housing policies.” Federal public housing regulations ban access for those with a narrow type of criminal history, but local housing authorities have broad authority to go beyond that ban and deny housing on the basis of “criminal activity.” Many evict or deny entire families if one member has had an arrest, even if they weren’t convicted. Private market housing can also be difficult to secure, as four in five landlords use criminal background checks to screen potential tenants.

All of this can be incredibly damaging for children. Parental incarceration is frequently linked with behavior problems, educational outcomes, childhood illness, and an increased risk of physical and mental health issues in adulthood. Parents’ poverty and employment insecurity can limit children’s language skills and educational attainment. Frequent moves thanks to a lack of affordable housing can hurt children’s language, mental health, and educational attainment, while homelessness and housing instability is associated with higher rates of childhood hunger, lower access to medical and dental care, and a likelihood of repeating a grade or having emotional and behavioral problems.

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Matos is frustrated with how her record impacts her children. “People like me should be able to earn a clean slate once we’ve paid our debt to society so we can become productive members of society and support our families,” she said. “I’m not asking for much — just that people like me get a second chance, so that we can be the parents we want to be.”

There have been some glimmers of improvement. Nineteen states have passed so-called “ban the box” legislation removing the question about criminal history from initial job applications. In November, President Obama issued an executive order banning the box in hiring for federal positions, delaying the questions to later in the process. States have the ability to change or waive the lifetime ban from food stamps and welfare for drug felons, and many have been doing so, such that only about 10 percent of states still have them. The Department of Housing and Urban Development issued guidance to local housing authorities in November saying that the “one strike” policy shouldn’t apply to arrests without conviction.

The CAP report calls for further reforms. Among them are telling Congress and states to pass policies that allow for the automatic sealing of low-level, nonviolent records after a set period of time and other provisions for record clearing, extending ban the box to federal contractors and getting all states and localities to adopt such policies, repealing the lifetime felony drug ban for welfare and food stamps, getting rid of the one strike policy for public housing and replacing it with individualized assessments, and adopting policies that prohibit landlords from discriminating based on criminal history.

Matos is still waiting for reforms to ease her path back to a job that would allow her to once again support her kids. “Even though it’s been almost 10 years since I paid my debt to society, I’m still being punished. My whole family is still being punished,” she said. “All I want is to be able to move on with my life and to be able to support my family so that my kids have a chance at a better life.”