According to estimates, approximately 70 million adults in the United States – or about one in three – have a felony or serious misdemeanor arrest or conviction record that could be found on a background check or otherwise be a barrier to employment.8 Additionally, each year an average of about 630,000 people are released from state and federal prison,9 often with few resources or contacts to help find employment.
While these figures alone are staggering, communities of color have higher rates of incarceration and therefore have even higher rates of adults with a conviction record than the population overall. Though people of color make up only about 39 percent of the total population,10 they make up approximately two-thirds of all state and federal prisoners. 11 In fact, while about one in 87 white men are currently incarcerated, black men and Latinos have significantly higher rates of one in 12 and one in 36, respectively.
Not only do people of color make up a disproportionate share of the prison population, they are also more likely to have harsher and longer sentences. As ACLU notes, “Black and Latino offenders sentenced in state and federal courts face significantly greater odds of incarceration than similarly situated white offenders and receive longer sentences than their white counterparts in some jurisdictions.”12 And, in 2009, though blacks represented only about 13 percent of the country’s total population, they represented nearly a third of those sentenced with life in prison and more than half of those serving life without the possibility of parole.13
As the ACLU notes, “Race matters at all phases and aspects of the criminal process, including the quality of representation, the charging phase, and the availability of plea agreements, each of which impact whether juvenile and adult defendants face a potential [life without the possibility of parole] sentence.”14 High rates of imprisonment lead to high rates of people of color with a criminal record that could impact their employment prospects, as well.
One area in which people of color have especially been targeted and seen harsher sentencing is controlled substances. While white adults are more likely “to have used most kinds of illegal drugs, including cocaine, marijuana and LSD,” people of color are more likely to be arrested for drug possession.22 Though blacks represent only 12 percent of drug users, they comprise more than one-third of those arrested for drug offenses and more than half of those in state prison for a drug offense.23 Additionally,
“for nonmarijuana felony drug offenses, Latinos were 14 percent more likely than whites to receive plea offers including jail or prison time.”24
The War on Drugs has exacerbated the problem, with higher sentences for the types of drugs more likely to be used by communities of color25 and three strikes laws that leave judges with little to no discretion in sentencing.26 Even misdemeanor drug offenses can restrict employment options, and these offenses can also bar access to food stamps, subsidized housing, and other support programs. 27 So, disproportionate convictions and harsher sentences for people of color not only impact their time in the criminal justice system, but restrict their ability to make ends meet years later.
The criminalization of poverty and resurgence of debtors’ prisons can also lead to convictions that impact employment and benefits, and like controlled substance arrests, disproportionately impact people of color. As discussed in the recent Alliance brief “Debtors’ Prisons Redux,” low-income communities and communities of color are targeted for low-level citations, and those citations can quickly lead to high levels of debt to the courts.28
In turn, these debts can lead to suspended drivers’ licenses and jail time. Additionally, some offenders may turn to other illegal activities to acquire the funds to pay off their court debts,29 which can lead to more serious consequences and employment restrictions. And, as most offenders leave prison with some level of debt from fines, fees, restitution, and/or interest,30 the ability to make ends meet is especially important to avoid a cycle of debt and prison.