For far too many people, a criminal record can stand in the way of jobs, loans, and even housing. Devastating to individuals and families, the economic consequences add up, weakening state and local economies. Research shows that as a state’s share of felony convictions rises, so does the number of unemployed people.
What does that mean for New York? In a 2021 report, we estimated that there were around 337,000 New Yorkers who had been imprisoned at some point in their lives, and reduced earning potential related to time in prison cost them $1.9 billion every year.
But that number was, if anything, an underestimate of the economic effects of criminal records, because it omitted the effects of convictions that do not include prison time.
How many people have a criminal record?
Data on the criminal justice system is notoriously hard to come by, and the Brennan Center and other researchers have historically relied on estimates to understand how many people have a criminal record (and what kind of record they have). By working with state officials, researchers at John Jay College’s Data Collaborative for Justice (DCJ) were able to improve on that process, concluding that roughly 2.1 million adult New Yorkers have a criminal conviction of some kind. By comparison, the state’s workforce comprises around 9.7 million people.
DCJ’s data also identifies profound racial disparities in the distribution of criminal records. Roughly 30 percent of people with a conviction record in New York State are Black, but only around 15 percent of the state’s overall population is Black. Interestingly, our research found that Black New Yorkers make up a much larger share (43 percent) of formerly imprisoned people in the state. This discrepancy could be due to many different factors, among them racially discriminatory sentencing laws.
What is the economic impact of these convictions?
Equipped with a better estimate of the number of New Yorkers with criminal convictions, we can more accurately gauge the true economic impact of a conviction on lifetime earnings in the state.
According to a 2020 Brennan Center analysis, felony convictions reduce a person’s annual earnings by around 20 percent, and misdemeanors by around 15 percent. Applying those estimates to DCJ’s analysis, as shown below, suggests that underemployment related to a criminal record costs New Yorkers around $12.6 billion annually — more than five times our estimate of the effects of prison terms alone on annual earnings.
This is a staggering amount of money — but it is consistent with our understanding of how criminal records affect economic insecurity. A conviction history of any degree can lead to people being passed over for work or being turned away from higher-paying jobs. And a wide array of rules keeps individuals with a record from obtaining professional licenses, gating off sectors of the economy.
It is worth noting a few limitations on our estimate. For one, it is based on combining national estimates of earnings losses with state conviction figures. Second, it is difficult to say how these lost earnings impact different groups. Our 2020 analysis showed that time in prison more heavily impacted the lifetime earnings of Black and Latino people. It is likely that communities of color also disproportionately bear the economic consequences of conviction records in general, including those that do not involve prison time. But more information is needed to be sure.
Helping New Yorkers with a criminal record
Reversing the financial harms of criminal records should be a priority for policymakers, especially those hoping to reduce economic inequality or strengthen the state’s workforce. One promising option is to expand laws that allow people to “seal” criminal records. Sealing generally limits who can see a record and when. This solution has proved effective in Michigan, where one study showed that sealing criminal records boosted both wages and employment.
New York allows some criminal records to be sealed, but mostly through a petition-based process that few eligible people manage to navigate. Automating the process and expanding eligibility — as proposed by the state Clean Slate Act currently being considered by the legislature — would go a long way toward making sealing the norm rather than the exception. In its current iteration, the bill would automatically seal most misdemeanors after three years and felonies after seven. These waiting periods would “reset” each time a person commits a new offense.
While it’s difficult to say with certainty who stands to benefit from the Clean Slate Act, DCJ’s analysis gives some clues. For one, 77 percent of convictions in New York State are for misdemeanors, and 76 percent of New Yorkers with a conviction record have a misdemeanor as their most serious offense. That suggests most sealed convictions would be misdemeanors, and most beneficiaries would be people who have never been convicted of a felony.
Furthermore, 53 percent of people with a conviction have only one offense on their record. And nearly half of all people with a record have not been convicted of a crime in two decades. It is highly likely, then, that many beneficiaries of the Clean Slate Act would be people with criminal records that are either very short, very dated, or both. These are people for whom sealing will be especially meaningful, as it would essentially wipe their records clean. Additionally, there is little public safety rationale for keeping these convictions on anyone’s record. Someone who committed a crime 20 years ago and has avoided justice system involvement ever since is highly unlikely to commit another offense.
Last, according to DCJ, 44 percent of people with a criminal record live in Upstate New York, compared with 38 percent who are living in the five boroughs. New York City does stand to gain significantly from the passage of the Clean Slate Act, as indicated in a recent analysis by the city’s comptroller. But it won’t be the exclusive beneficiary.
• • •
Research demonstrates that criminal records can contribute to or exacerbate poverty. Now is the time for lawmakers to act to change that dynamic. As the legislative session draws to a close, state leaders should focus on ways to expand opportunities for people with a criminal record, starting with the Clean Slate Act.