In March 2020, as the first wave of COVID-19 swept across the country, Congress passed the $2 trillion CARES Act. The law’s centerpiece was the $350 billion Paycheck Protection Program, which provided forgivable loans to small businesses. But not every business was eligible — the Small Business Administration, which operated the program, excluded anyone convicted of a felony in the past five years, or who was currently on parole or probation. Access to Economic Injury Disaster Loans, which Congress had earmarked for low-income communities, was even more limited: Applicants who had been convicted of any crime in the past ten years, or had ever been arrested for a felony, were automatically rejected.
These restrictions were later loosened, but they illustrate the challenges faced by people with criminal records.
“If there’s one silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that every injustice in America has been laid bare for the country to see,” said Holly Harris, the president and executive director of the Justice Action Network. “The fact that small business owners with criminal records were not eligible to access emergency funds — just think about how nonsensical that is. These are people who have done the hard work of turning their lives around, starting a business, creating jobs, becoming productive, tax-paying citizens. And now you’re going to prohibit them from accessing emergency loans?”
If you’ve ever been arrested or charged with a crime — even if you weren’t convicted — you are among the one in three adults in the United States, about 78 million people, with a criminal record. Thanks to “tough on crime” laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s, people with criminal records face discrimination in virtually every aspect of their lives, from renting an apartment, to applying for a job, to obtaining a professional license, to voting in elections. “Everybody knows somebody who’s got a criminal record, whether it’s a friend or family member,” Harris said. “Every single American family is now impacted by this.”
Number of adults in the U.S., about 78 million people, with a criminal record
As the justice reform movement has grown in recent years, public attitudes toward people with criminal records have started to change. A new survey released today by the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation and the polling group Voice of the People reveals overwhelming bipartisan support for limiting the negative consequences of a criminal record. Large majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents voiced support for a range of reform measures that have been proposed in Congress, including prohibiting employers from rejecting a job applicant because of a criminal record and automatically sealing the records of people convicted of low-level offenses.
The survey was designed by political psychologist Steven Kull, who used a format known as a “policymaking simulation.” Survey respondents were first given a policy briefing on the issue, then provided with a set of arguments for and against a set of policy proposals taken from Congressional legislation. Respondents rated each argument as “persuasive” or “not persuasive,” then indicated whether or not they supported the proposal. “We want to put people in the shoes of policymakers, as if they’re sitting there on the floor of Congress and hearing the arguments,” Kull explained.
The proposals that received bipartisan support included:
- A rule preventing employers and licensing boards from disqualifying an applicant because they were arrested but not charged, or charged but found not guilty (Democrats 90 percent, Republicans 72 percent)
- A rule preventing public housing authorities from disqualifying a person because they were arrested, charged with a crime, or convicted of a non-violent crime (Democrats 88 percent, Republicans 70 percent)
- A rule allowing people arrested, or charged but found not guilty, to have their records sealed (Democrats 85 percent, Republicans 70 percent)
The only proposal that didn’t receive majority bipartisan support was restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions after their release. While 87 percent of Democrats supported the idea, the idea divided Republicans, with 48 percent for and 52 against.
“These are rather remarkably high levels of bipartisan agreement,” Kull noted. “Criminal justice can be a polarizing issue, and it does sometimes fall along partisan lines, but we found quite a lot of agreement.”
Everybody knows somebody who’s got a criminal record, whether it’s a friend or family member. Every single American family is now impacted by this.Holly Harris President and executive director, Justice Action Network
Less surprised by the results was Carson Whitelemons, a criminal justice manager at Arnold Ventures. “This survey confirms what we have long known about this issue, which is that there is broad public support for reform,” she said. “I see this as galvanizing the national movement to reform decades of failed policies.”
Even during the pandemic, that movement has continued to rack up victories. In 2020, 32 states and the District of Columbia loosened restrictions for people with criminal records, passing a total of 106 legislative bills and approving five ballot initiatives. President Trump, who signed the First Step Act in 2019, which cut unnecessarily long federal sentences, issued four executive orders in 2020 related to criminal justice reform.
A Personal Impact
The issue is a personal one for Whitelemons. Her father was incarcerated for part of her childhood; when he was released, work opportunities were limited. Whitelemons remembers years in which her father wasn’t allowed to vote, despite his passion for politics. “When I think of my father, of everything that defines him and everything I admire about him, the criminal record in his past is a footnote,” she said. Given that around half of all children in the United States have a parent with a criminal record, Whitelemons’ story is far from unique.
Sheena Meade, the managing director of the Clean Slate Initiative, knows the challenges of living with a criminal record all too well. In her twenties, Meade was arrested several times for minor offenses such as bouncing a check. As a single mom, she was merely trying to support her family; she had no conception of the difficulties facing people with criminal records. When she applied to the University of Florida, the application included a question about whether she had ever been arrested. When she applied to chaperone her children’s field trip to SeaWorld, she was asked the same question. Two years ago, she had to check the box when she and her husband were trying to rent a home.
“I initially didn’t understand the consequences of an arrest,” Meade said. “If I didn’t have a family who was able to pay my bail, I probably would have stayed in jail. I could have lost my job, I could have lost my kids.” Meade ultimately became an organizer, helping restore the voting rights of 1.4 million formerly incarcerated people as a leader of the Florida Rights Restoration Campaign. In 2020 she moved to the Clean Slate Initiative, a national bipartisan coalition that advocates for automatically sealing eligible criminal records across the country. (The project receives funding from Arnold Ventures.)
Meade said she was encouraged by the results of the University of Maryland survey.
“I think it shows that there’s been a narrative shift in how people view people with criminal records. America is a nation of second chances, and with one in three American adults having a criminal record, embracing second chances is even more important today.”