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African American Forum

E. Post Prison/Collateral Consequences - Racial Disparity in the United States Criminal Justice System

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African Americans—particularly black men—are most exposed to the collateral consequences associated with a criminal record. In 2010, 8% of all adults in the United States had a felony conviction on their record. Among African-American men, the rate was one in three (33%). People with criminal records face a host of obstacles to re-enter society even after they have fully completed their term of incarceration or community supervision. These include barriers to securing steady employment and housing, to accessing the social safety net and federal student aid, and to exercising the right to vote.

Nearly one-third of U.S. workers hold jobs that require an occupational license, a requirement which sometimes bars and often poses cumbersome obstacles for people with criminal records. In sectors that do not require licensing, employers are 50% less likely to call back white job applicants with incarceration histories than comparable applicants without prison records. African American job applicants, who are less likely to receive callbacks than whites to begin with, experience an even more pronounced discrimination related to a criminal record. As scholar Devah Pager’s research has revealed, whites with criminal records receive more favorable treatment than blacks without criminal records. People with criminal convictions also face discrimination in the private rental market and those with felony drug convictions face restrictions in accessing government-assisted housing.

The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 imposed a lifetime denial of cash assistance and food stamps to people convicted in state or federal courts of felony drug offenses, unless states opt out of the ban. Given the dynamics of social class and the accompanying disparate racial effects of the criminal justice system, women and children of color are disproportionately impacted by this exclusionary law. By 2018, 24 states had fully opted out of the food stamp ban, 21 others had only done so in part, and five states continued to fully enforce the ban. An even larger number of states continue to impose a partial or full ban on cash assistance for people with felony drug convictions.

Disenfranchisement patterns have also reflected the dramatic growth and disproportionate impact of criminal convictions. A record 6.1 million Americans were forbidden from voting because of their felony record in 2016, rising from 1.2 million in 1976. Felony disenfranchisement rates for voting-age African Americans reached 7.4% in 2016—four times the rate of non-African Americans (1.8%). In three states, more than one in five voting-age African Americans is disenfranchised: Florida, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The majority of disenfranchised Americans are living in their communities, having fully completed their sentences or remaining supervised while on probation or parole.


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