Skip Navigation

The Misdemeanor System Reinforces Economic Inequality

Exposure to the criminal justice system can lead to a lifetime of lower wages — which, in turn, worsens the racial wealth gap.

October 6, 2020
SOPA Images

In the United States, involve­ment with the crim­inal justice system can lead to economic barri­ers such as hiring discrim­in­a­tion and lower wages, which dispro­por­tion­ately hurt Black Amer­ic­ans and people strug­gling with poverty. These finan­cial consequences can be severe even in cases that involve misde­meanor convic­tions for relat­ively minor offenses, such as loiter­ing or tres­passing. In a new report, Convic­tion, Impris­on­ment, and Lost Earn­ings, the Bren­nan Center estim­ates how crim­inal convic­tions and prison sentences depress indi­vidu­al’s earn­ings. Compoun­ded over time, these losses rein­force patterns of economic inequal­ity and racial dispar­it­ies in wealth.

Indi­vidu­als with misde­meanor convic­tions can face a life­time of lower wages

More than 70 million people in the United States — or more than one in five people — have some kind of crim­inal record. That figure includes about 45 million Amer­ic­ans, or about 14 percent of the popu­la­tion, with misde­meanor convic­tions. And while misde­mean­ors often involve lower-level crimes, they can nonethe­less lead to severe, long-term finan­cial losses. In Convic­tion, Impris­on­ment, and Lost Earn­ings, the Bren­nan Center finds that people with a misde­meanor convic­tion exper­i­ence reduced annual earn­ings by an aver­age of 16 percent — losses that total nearly $100,000 over the course of a life­time.

One reason wage losses happen is that a misde­meanor convic­tion can create barri­ers to getting a job. For example, a convic­tion, even for a minor offense, could show up on a back­ground check, which can make it less likely for a job candid­ate to receive a call­back for an inter­view. In some cases, a convic­tion can also disqual­ify indi­vidu­als from obtain­ing a profes­sional license they need to advance in their occu­pa­tion.

These finan­cial losses serve to perpetu­ate exist­ing patterns of poverty. Cameron Kimble, a coau­thor of the Bren­nan Center report, says that a misde­meanor convic­tion can prevent someone from exper­i­en­cing the typical increase in earn­ings that happens over the traject­ory of a career.

“It means that a convicted person is likely to reach a very low earn­ings ceil­ing at a stage in their career when most people are getting promo­tions. With a crim­inal record, you don’t get those oppor­tun­it­ies,” said Kimble. “Your wages flat­line, usually at an hourly wage that results in making less than the federal poverty threshold for a family of two. And now, an economic crisis in the wake of Covid-19 could contrib­ute to even worse unem­ploy­ment rates for indi­vidu­als involved with the justice system.”

Terry-Ann Craigie, also a report coau­thor, says that a misde­meanor convic­tion can lead to further involve­ment in the crim­inal justice system. “A misde­meanor sets you up for disad­vant­age in the labor market. This could lead to poten­tially getting involved in more severe types of offenses, which in turn could lead to incar­cer­a­tion. In this way, a seem­ingly moder­ate loss of earn­ings could have a compound­ing effect on getting even more deeply involved in the crim­inal justice system,” she said.

The unequal consequences of the misde­meanor process

Vast racial dispar­it­ies in wealth have long exis­ted in the United States, and white famil­ies continue to have on aver­age a much higher net worth than Black or Latino famil­ies. The finan­cial costs of the misde­meanor process exacer­bate this racial wealth gap and make Amer­ican soci­ety even more unequal. Crim­inal law schol­ars such as Alex­an­dra Natapoff have found that the U.S. misde­meanor system often targets low-income communit­ies of color, includ­ing through discrim­in­at­ory prac­tices such as racial profil­ing, stop and frisk, and the over-poli­cing of Black neigh­bor­hoods. 

“The misde­meanor system entrenches poverty by dispro­por­tion­ately target­ing people of color and low-income people for low-level offenses — such as loiter­ing, vagrancy, or jump­ing an MTA turn­stile — which are very often borne of poverty,” said Kimble.

Often, misde­meanor convic­tions for minor offenses lead to crim­inal justice debt in the form of fees and fines that result in court-imposed debts. These debts, espe­cially accu­mu­lated over time, can have a destruct­ive effect — serving as yet another poten­tial path­way to incar­cer­a­tion, making it more diffi­cult for indi­vidu­als to reenter soci­ety after a convic­tion, and ulti­mately threat­en­ing to trap people in a cycle of poverty. “With fees and fines, you’re extract­ing wealth from people already strug­gling with poverty so that the system can fund itself,” said Kimble. However, there is little evid­ence that crim­inal justice fees and fines improve public safety. What’s more, a 2019 Bren­nan Center study found that while crim­inal courts have become more depend­ent on fees and fines, they are actu­ally an inef­fi­cient source of govern­ment funds.

Paths to reform­ing the misde­meanor system

In Convic­tion, Impris­on­ment, and Lost Earn­ings, the Bren­nan Center has outlined a vari­ety of policy recom­mend­a­tions to address the uneven economic consequences of involve­ment with the crim­inal justice system.

States, for example, can remove unne­ces­sary barri­ers to employ­ment for indi­vidu­als with crim­inal records. This could involve expun­ging misde­mean­ors from indi­vidu­als’ crim­inal records after a certain amount of time. Addi­tion­ally, across the United States, there are at least 6,000 state-imposed occu­pa­tional licens­ing restric­tions on people with a misde­meanor record. States should consider getting rid of such restric­tions, which prevent people from pursu­ing or advan­cing in their careers.

Numer­ous cities, states, and counties have adop­ted “ban-the-box” rules, which prevent employ­ers from asking for crim­inal records on job applic­a­tion forms, defer­ring such ques­tions to the tail end of the hiring process. “Ban-the-box policies are tremend­ously help­ful for indi­vidu­als with misde­meanor records, who have been stig­mat­ized for having a convic­tion, even though there was no time served,” said Craigie.

Cities and states should work to prevent hous­ing discrim­in­a­tion against applic­ants with crim­inal records. Finally, certain offenses can be safely decrim­in­al­ized and addressed entirely outside of the crim­inal justice system.

The United States’ expans­ive misde­meanor system has played a notable role in accel­er­at­ing economic and racial inequal­ity. Lawmakers can help break the cycle by reform­ing it.

Read the full Bren­nan Center report Convic­tion, Impris­on­ment, and Lost Earn­ings: How Involve­ment with the Crim­inal Justice System Deep­ens Inequal­ity.