The societal consequences of felony convictions

Yesterday, I attended a talk by New York University Prof. Diedre Royster. The author of Race and the Invisible Hand, Royster mentioned her surprise that Americans are not aware of (1) what kinds of acts can result in felony charges, and (2) the consequences that can accompany a felony conviction.

One can receive a felony conviction for a variety of acts. Most readers will think that felony convictions are for interpersonal crimes that involve violence, such as rape and murder. However, a prior history of small criminal acts, such as a series of petty thefts, can result in a felony charge. Under the PATRIOT act, exercising the Constitutional right to assembly or even planning a protest can be redefined as terrorist acts subject to felony charges. Seemingly innocent acts can lead to charges for a felony crime, such as using a digital camera to videorecord a few minutes of a relative’s birthday get-together in a movie theater. Acts that are misdemeanors in one state, such as possession of a small amount of marijuana, are felonies in another state.

Depending upon the state, a felony conviction is associated with numerous penalties, including the temporary or even permanent loss of voting rights during incarceration and parole. In Locked Out, Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen discuss the consequences of this loss of the right to vote, which affects 1 in every 40 Americans. Moreover, a felony conviction can lead to the loss of the professional license necessary to practice a variety of occupations, from psychologists to CPAs.

Research indicates that convictions and incarceration can disproportionately impact the employment chances of certain groups. For instance, sociologists Devah Pager and Lincoln Quillian’s experimental study revealed that although employers self-report a willingness to consider such applicants, they are less likely to call back job applicants who have served time in practice. More disturbingly, employers are also less likely to call back black applicants, preferring white applicants, even those with a criminal record, over black applicants without a criminal record. Read the results of this empirical study here: “Walking the Talk? What Employers Say Versus What They Do.”

What can be done? At minimum, individuals should learn their rights, be aware of attempts to alter these rights, and make sure that other individuals are not deprived of their rights. The Burning Man organization, for instance, educates participants of their rights and responsibilities. Groups such as the ACLU help keep track of legislation and policies that affect rights.

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