Forty-one States Took Action to Mitigate Collateral Consequences of a Criminal Conviction from 2009-2014

Legislative changes continue bipartisan trends in criminal justice reform at state and federal level

NEW YORK – For millions of Americans, the legal and life-restricting consequences of a criminal conviction continue even after they’ve repaid their debt to society as barriers to voting, housing, jobs, education, and a raft of social services limit their ability to provide for their families and successfully reenter society. In recognition of these damaging effects, a number of states have enacted measures that allow certain individuals to move beyond their convictions.

A new report from the Vera Institute of Justice’s (Vera) Center on Sentencing and Corrections—Relief in Sight? States Rethink the Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction, 2009-2014—reviews this legislative activity, discusses the limitations of current approaches, and offers recommendations to states and localities considering similar reforms.

“People are being forced to wear their criminal histories like a scarlet letter long after their sentences are complete,” said Ram Subramanian, the report’s lead author. “These consequences often prevent people from successfully reentering society and making positive contributions to their families and communities.”

Having a criminal record—or even an arrest record—can subject an individual to wide-reaching and long-lasting effects, including:

  • temporary or permanent loss of certain civil rights, such as the right to vote, serve on a jury, or hold public office; 
  • temporary or permanent loss of social benefits, such as public housing, food stamps, and federally-funded student aid; 
  • employment or occupational licensing restrictions, such as being banned from being a dockworker, real estate agent, and even a bingo caller for certain convictions; 
  • restrictions on the ability to adopt or retain custody of one’s own children; and 
  • deportation for non-citizens.

This is in addition to the many difficult-to-regulate informal disqualifications imposed by private actors, such as landlords, employers, and university admission officers.

Since 2009, however, 41 states and the District of Columbia have enacted 155 pieces of legislation to mitigate the burdens of collateral consequences for individuals with certain criminal convictions. States have pursued seven broad approaches to achieve this goal:

  • Creating or expanding remedies aimed at sealing or expunging criminal records. 
  • Issuing certificates of recovery so that third parties, such as employers and landlords, can make better-informed decisions about individuals with criminal records who have met certain rehabilitative standards. 
  • Allowing for offense downgrades, such as from a felony to a misdemeanor, to eligible individuals. 
  • Building relief into the criminal justice system, such as deferred prosecution or adjudication programs. 
  • Easing employment-related collateral consequences or removing licensing restrictions. 
  • Improving access to information about collateral consequences for convicted individuals. 
  • Mitigating specific collateral consequences, such as restrictions on housing, public benefits, or adoption.

According to the report, however, many of the reforms are narrowly tailored in terms of which offenders and offenses it impacts, relief mechanisms are difficult to access, waiting periods are long in many cases, and third-parties can easily undermine, work around, or ignore the rules that govern their use of an individual’s criminal history.

The report offers recommendations on ways in which policymakers can institute reforms that ameliorate the impact of collateral consequences while promoting safer communities and improved outcomes for justice-involved people and their families, including promoting the full restoration of rights and status after an individual completes his or her sentence and applying remedies to more people.

It also includes a complete list of all 155 pieces of legislation providing summaries of representative bills, which can be accessed, along with an infographic and one-page summary, on Vera’s website.