Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Dear Common Dreams Readers:
Corporations and billionaires have their own media. Shouldn't we? When you “follow the money” that funds our independent journalism, it all leads back to this: people like you. Our supporters are what allows us to produce journalism in the public interest that is beholden only to people, our planet, and the common good. Please support our Mid-Year Campaign so that we always have a newsroom for the people that is funded by the people. Thank you for your support. --Jon Queally, managing editor

Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year. Without your help, we won’t survive.

According to the report, "4 out of 5 landlords and nearly 9 in 10 employers using criminal background checks to screen out people with criminal records before they even get a shot." (Photo: Rennett Stowe/cc/flickr)

According to the report, "4 out of 5 landlords and nearly 9 in 10 employers using criminal background checks to screen out people with criminal records before they even get a shot." (Photo: Rennett Stowe/cc/flickr)

Criminal Records Create Endless Cycle of Poverty, Says Report

US criminal justice system is creating economic, housing and social barriers for formally incarcerated, holding back families, communities and economy

Lauren McCauley

The U.S. criminal justice system has kept millions of Americans in an endless cycle of poverty and incarceration, creating barriers for former inmates as well as their families, communities and national economy, according to a new report published Tuesday.

Adding to the body of research that has shown mass incarceration to be a principal driver of inequality in America, particularly among men of color, the reportOne Strike and You’re Out How We Can Eliminate Barriers to Economic Security and Mobility for People with Criminal Records (pdf)examines the economic consequences of having a criminal record.

"Today, a criminal record serves as both a direct cause and consequence of poverty," write report authors Rebecca Vallas, associate director of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress, and Sharon Dietrich, litigation director at Philadelphia's Community Legal Services.

Among the causes, they note that a criminal record presents obstacles to employment, housing, public assistance, education, and family reunification. Moreover, incarceration has become a growing consequence of poverty "due to the growing criminalization of poverty and homelessness," the authors add.

In recent years, these barriers have been intensified by policy choices such as blanket bans on providing people with criminal records with necessities such as housing and public assistance. Further, according to the study, due to the ease of accessing data via the internet, today "4 out of 5 landlords and nearly 9 in 10 employers using criminal background checks to screen out people with criminal records before they even get a shot."

As noted in a piece published Tuesday by Brennan Center for Justice counsels Lauren-Brooke Eisen and Jessica Eaglin, the criminal justice system also imposes countless fees on inmates causing individuals to emerge from incarceration having paid a "penalty for an offense, and then be incarcerated for failing to pay off the debt incurred as a result of that offense."

"People are treated as criminals long after they pose any significant risk of committing further crimes— making it difficult for many to move on with their lives and achieve basic economic security, let alone have a shot at upward mobility," Vallas and Dietrich write.

The poverty-incarceration cycle has significant implications on the U.S. economy as a whole. Citing a 2010 Center for Economic and Policy Research report, Vallas and Dietrich note that the estimated cost of employment losses among people with criminal records is much as $65 billion per year in terms of gross domestic product.

The result of this system, according to Vallas and Dietrich, is that the nearly one in three Americans with a criminal record "are prevented from becoming productive members of society, and their families, communities, and the national economy are held back as well."

Among the many recommendations put forth in the report, Vallas and Dietrich say that legislation that would "automatically seal low-level, nonviolent convictions after an individual has demonstrated his or her rehabilitation" is tantamount to providing Americans who have a criminal record with a "truly clean slate."

Short of that, the report recommends that state and federal governments: enact protections against egregious background checks, advocate fair-chance hiring practices by government contractors, eliminate "one-strike" public housing policies, invest in prison education and training, suspend the felony drug ban on income and nutrition assistance, and reform criminal justice debt policies, among others.

Published by the Center for American Progress, One Strike and You're Out was released in conjunction with a week of advocacy on criminal justice reform being hosted by CAP blog TalkPoverty.org.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Just a few days left in our crucial Mid-Year Campaign and we might not make it without your help.
Who funds our independent journalism? Readers like you who believe in our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. No corporate advertisers. No billionaire founder. Our non-partisan, nonprofit media model has only one source of revenue: The people who read and value this work and our mission. That's it.
And the model is simple: If everyone just gives whatever amount they can afford and think is reasonable—$3, $9, $29, or more—we can continue. If not enough do, we go dark.

All the small gifts add up to something otherwise impossible. Please join us today. Donate to Common Dreams. This is crunch time. We need you now.

'Horrific': 50 Migrants Found Dead in Abandoned Trailer Truck in Texas

"We need to end Title 42 and fix our broken immigration system so these unimaginable tragedies stop happening," said Rep. Chuy García. "People fleeing violence and poverty deserve a chance at a better life."

Jake Johnson ·


Harris Says White House Not 'Discussing' Use of Federal Land for Abortion Care

Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are among the Democratic lawmakers who have expressed support for the idea as GOP-controlled states move to outlaw abortion.

Jake Johnson ·


Abortion Rights Defenders Applaud Judge's Block on Utah 'Trigger Ban'

"Today is a win, but it is only the first step in what will undoubtedly be a long and difficult fight," said one pro-choice advocate.

Brett Wilkins ·


Scores Feared Dead and Wounded as Russian Missiles Hit Ukraine Shopping Center

"People just burned alive," said Ukraine's interior minister, while the head of the Poltava region stated that "it is too early to talk about the final number of the killed."

Brett Wilkins ·


Biodiversity Risks Could Persist for Decades After Global Temperature Peak

One study co-author said the findings "should act as a wake-up call that delaying emissions cuts will mean a temperature overshoot that comes at an astronomical cost to nature and humans that unproven negative emission technologies cannot simply reverse."

Jessica Corbett ·

Common Dreams Logo