By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent
Ronald Lewis was standing on a street with his brother, who was selling drugs. When police were approaching, Lewis warned his brother. Both were arrested. That minor, almost reflexive reaction, led to Lewis sharing a drug possession charge with his brother as well as charges of being an instrument of a crime.
His lawyer advised him that he could win a trial. Later, that advice became a plea offer. Without being tried, Lewis accepted a B-class misdemeanor conviction, served no time in prison, and was released from probation early for steady compliance.
That was 10 years ago. Lewis, now 35, feels he is paying again for his past mistake.
“I paid that lawyer $10,000…I didn’t know what [the deal] entailed. I didn’t know the impact it would have on my life,” he says. After going through the criminal justice system, Lewis entered a vocational program and earned an engineering license.
He says, “I thought life would begin for me…but I have had so many doors slammed in my face, I know what wood tastes like.”
According to a new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP), as many as one in three Americans has a criminal record. Despite being commonplace, this status can cause lifelong socioeconomic challenges.
The report, titled, “One Strike and You’re Out: How We Can Eliminate Barriers to Economic Security and Mobility for People with Criminal Records,” paints the picture with an array of numbers:
- Ninety-five percent of people who are incarcerated at any level will be released.
- Each day, this is the case for more than 600,000 Americans who served time in prison.
- Each year, nearly 12 million people move through local jails.
- As of 2012, more than 4.7 million Americans were on probation or parole. Most will be confronted with their record as they attempt to rejoin society.
Research cited in the CAP report estimates that 87 percent of employers, 80 percent of landlords, and 66 percent of colleges use criminal and credit background checks to screen applicants.
By 2012, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released six times as many background checks for employers as it had the previous decade. The federal law that regulates the criminal and credit background-check industry was enacted in 1970, before the Internet; it generally applies to credit screening, as opposed to criminal records.
Thus, millions of people who have been arrested – even for exercising their constitutional right to protest – and were never convicted or incarcerated, still carry the stain of having criminal charges come up in a background check.
“Even a minor criminal record can serve as an intractable barrier to employment as well as utter basics such as housing, such as building good credit, education, job training, and more,” said Rachel Vallas, co-author of the report.
Low-income and people of color with criminal records are often most likely to fall into a cycle of poverty as a result of their records. The transgression, plus a common lack of skills and/or education, often merge to bar them from employment, and then from the social safety net that keeps people from sliding into deep poverty.
In addition to the employment challenges, difficulties with housing, public assistance, education and training, and economic stability and mobility compound their predicament.
In the case of public housing, for example, federal guidelines bar people with certain convictions and criminal activity – mostly drug-related, but also violent and sexual offenses – from receiving assistance.
However, local agencies manage federal housing programs and have authority to create their own guidelines. In many areas, agencies go beyond the federal guidelines to evict or deny housing to entire families if any one member has an encounter with the criminal justice system, regardless of whether they were ever convicted.
Similar restrictions exist on receiving food assistance, federal grants, and need-based aid for college. There’s also the significant challenge of debt incurred from moving through the criminal justice system.
“Examples include various types of ‘user fees’ that get tacked onto a conviction, public defender fees for defendants who exercise their right to counsel, and ‘pay-to-stay’ fees to offset the costs of incarceration, among many, many others. Total criminal justice debts can rise into the hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands of dollars,” the report reads, adding that in many states, one must clear all criminal justice debt before clearing his or her record.
The difficulties often extend past the person with the record. The report notes that as of 2012, more than half of incarcerated adults have minor children. Currently, more than one in four Black 20-somethings have had a parent incarcerated during their childhood.
“It affects everybody close to you,” says Lewis. “From the moment you get in trouble, it’s a disappointment, it affects your mom…. Then your family sees you trying to turn your life around and enduring rejection after rejection. Then that spills over to your wife and your kids because your mood is not the best, and your sense of self-worth is not the best.”
There’s a form from his daughter’s school that he still hasn’t signed and returned. It includes a question on criminal background.
He says, “I don’t want them to see her differently because of my record, or things that I did.”
The report makes several recommendations to both public and private sectors on improving outcomes for Americans with criminal records. Most recommendations center on new or updated legislation in employment, background check regulations, public assistance, criminal justice debts including child support, educational aid, and more.
“Providing a clean slate is the single most powerful tool to resolve the obstacles documented in this report,” the authors write. “Congress and the states should enact legislation to automatically seal low-level, nonviolent convictions after an individual has demonstrated his or her rehabilitation – meaning if he or she has not been rearrested within 10 years of conviction. Non-conviction records should be automatically sealed or expunged, at no charge to the individual and without their needing to apply or petition the court.”
Currently, Lewis is coming upon a year being employed in his field. At night he goes to school to earn an HVAC certification, which will be his third professional license. In the future, he hopes to start his own company to give people second chances.
“You have to give people something to do, something they can be proud of,” says the father of two. “You serve your time, and then it’s like double jeopardy because every time you apply for a job it comes up. It’s one strike and you’re out. Even in baseball there’s three strikes.”