With the United States leading the world in incarceration rates, criminal-justice reformers are targeting an unintended consequence of that reality. A new report released last month from the left-leaning Center for American Progress reveals children who have at least one parent with a criminal record also have a tougher time in life.
Rebecca Vallas, director of policy for the Poverty to Prosperity Program with the center, is co-author of the report. She says for the first time they have been able to estimate that nearly half of the country's children are affected, even if a parent has only been arrested and never convicted.
"Having even a minor criminal record can in many ways be a life sentence to poverty," she says. "Not just for the person with the record, but also for their kids and for their family."
Vallas estimates that in Illinois more than 300,000 children have a parent with a criminal record. The report notes this can negatively affect a parent's access to good incomes, savings, education and housing.
A Washington Post analysis earlier this year found the U.S. puts people behind bars at a higher rate than any other country. The center's report shows that most employers, colleges and landlords use criminal background checks. With so many parents having criminal records, Vallas says those factors can combine to create a less-than-ideal childhood.
"It can affect their language development, their school performance, their educational attainment, their health and even their employment and earnings prospects in adulthood," says Vallas.
To help with this issue, Vallas specifically suggests that lawmakers could enact changes such as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015.
"We've got bipartisan agreement among policy makers in Washington that our criminal-justice system needs to be reformed, that we need to be smart on crime instead of being tough on crime," she says.
These changes include ideas such as a clean-slate policy, which would seal low-level, nonviolent criminal records once a person has proved they can live "crime-free for a set period of time."
You can find the full report at AmericanProgress.org.