Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Paying a Price, Long After the Crime

That's the title of a head-turning New York Times opinion editorial by criminal justice experts Alfred Blumstein and Kiminori Nakamura, which describes the experience of countless former offenders (and non-offenders) who have paid their debts to society ... or so they thought.

The op-ed raises some disturbing facts about just how many Americans have a run-in with the law -- and find that it changes their lives:

A stunning number of young people are arrested for crimes in this country, and those crimes can haunt them for the rest of their lives. In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Crime Commission found that about half of American males could expect to be arrested for a nontraffic offense some time in their lives, mostly in their late teens and early 20s. An article just published in the journal Pediatrics shows how the arrest rate has grown — by age 23, 30 percent of Americans have been arrested, compared with 22 percent in 1967. The increase reflects in part the considerable growth in arrests for drug offenses and domestic violence.
The impact of these arrests is felt for years. The ubiquity of criminal-background checks and the efficiency of information technology in maintaining those records and making them widely available, have meant that millions of Americans — even those who served probation or parole but were never incarcerated — continue to pay a price long after the crime. In November the American Bar Association released a database identifying more than 38,000 punitive provisions that apply to people convicted of crimes, pertaining to everything from public housing to welfare assistance to occupational licenses. More than two-thirds of the states allow hiring and professional-licensing decisions to be made on the basis of an arrest alone. 
That's horrible news in the best of times, much less in a global economic downturn like the one we're currently wishing would end (and soon, please).  In the U.S., there are currently over 7.3 million people in our criminal justice system -- and those are only the people who got convicted, not just arrested.

So, is there any data that hints when it might be absolutely safe to hire someone with a conviction or arrest record?
It is well established that the risk of recidivism drops steadily with time, but there is still the question of how long is long enough. By looking at data for more than 88,000 people who had their first arrest in New York State in 1980, and tracking their subsequent criminal histories over the next 25 years, we estimate the “redemption time” — the time it takes for an individual’s likelihood of being arrested to be close to that of individuals with no criminal records — to be about 10 to 13 years. We also found that about 30 percent of the first-time offenders in 1980 were never arrested again, in New York or anywhere else.
If our sole goal of punishment is public safety -- making sure people don't commit more crimes -- these numbers raise some interesting questions about sentencing policies.  If 30% of first-time offenders are unlikely to ever be arrested again, should that 30% ever go to prison?  Perhaps the encounter with the criminal justice system is itself enough to lead them away from crime.  If the "redemption time" is 10 to 13 years after a conviction, should a sentence ever be longer than that?

I don't know the answers -- I'm just asking the questions.