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Perpetual punishment: Study examines the impact of criminal convictions

by | Apr 20, 2021 | Criminal Defense |

Students of criminology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington study the law, the criminal justice system and the biological, psychological and social causes of crime.

One aspect of the justice system that sometimes gets too little academic attention is the long-term effect of criminal convictions in limiting opportunities in employment, housing and professional licensing.

Digging into the data

New research by the Data Collaborative for Justice (DCJ) looks at the impact of a conviction on people’s lives. DCJ researchers dug deep into New York City criminal justice data from between 1980 and 2019.

There were 3,354,166 criminal convictions in those years, with more than three-quarters of the convictions for misdemeanors and a third for drug-related crimes.

The convictions resulted in nearly 750,000 people with criminal records, with 40 percent of them having just a single conviction. For approximately two-thirds of those with conviction records, their most recent conviction was more than a decade ago.

For those 750,000 with convictions, the path to economic prosperity is often littered with hurdles.

Impacts on employment and housing

The DCJ points out that a person with a record seeking a security guard job can be denied a license if they have convictions for certain drug offenses. North Carolina landlords can reject potential renters who have a criminal history.

A 2020 Brennan Center study found that people who have a misdemeanor conviction on their record earn 16 percent less over the course of their lives, while those who have felony convictions lose 22 percent. The diminished earnings become a form of perpetual punishment that affects not only the person convicted, but can also have a detrimental effect on their partner and children.

Shifting perspectives

A person with a low-level drug possession conviction can carry the burden of lower income and narrowed educational and housing opportunities, even though attitudes about marijuana use and possession have changed in much of the country, including here in North Carolina.

While cannabis possession has been partially decriminalized here, people should be aware of the painful penalties that still exist.

Possession of a half-ounce or less is a misdemeanor that can no longer result in jail, but it can mean a fine of up to $200. Penalties escalate quickly from there: possession of a half-ounce to an ounce and a half can mean a jail sentence of up to 45 days and a fine of up to $1,000.

Possession or cultivation of more than an ounce and a half but less than 10 pounds is a Class 1 felony that carries a maximum sentence of a year in jail.

Different approach, different results

In a recent op-ed, the DCJ policy director and the managing director of racial justice for a DCJ research funding organization ask:  “Should a person who has already faced punishment continue to pay social and economic costs associated with their convictions?” They argue that “clean slate” laws that clear convictions make an enormous difference in people’s lives, as well as for their families and communities.

In Michigan, one of three “clean slate” states, “people who had their convictions cleared earned 22 percent more than those who still had criminal records a year after expungement.”

Unfortunately, the reality here in North Carolina is that criminal charges that result in convictions can mean not only harsh punishments by the state, county or city, but a painful form of perpetual punishment by society. That’s why it’s so important to fight charges and minimize possible damage.