Collateral consequences are sanctions imposed upon an individual outside of the realm of formal sentencing associated with criminal punishment. These consequences often have far more severe, long-lasting, and wide-ranging impacts than direct forms of punishment. The myriad of legal, regulatory, and informal stigma-related repercussions of having a criminal record frequently serve to preclude ex-offenders from accessing a breadth of rights, opportunities, and resources; including those related to employment, housing, education, healthcare, voting, and receiving public benefits.
In addition to directly harming justice-involved individuals themselves, collateral consequences have been found to have large aggregate and intergenerational impacts on the families and communities that surround these individuals. As a result, affected communities often experience deeply entrenched socioeconomic oppression, higher rates of homelessness and health complications, and an increased likelihood of future criminal justice involvement. Because of stark racial and socioeconomic disparities that exist both within and outside of the criminal justice system, the burdensome effects of collateral consequences are disproportionately felt by low-income communities and communities of color.
The COVID-19 pandemic both magnified and illuminated the deadly and far-reaching effects that criminal justice involvement and the collateral consequences that follow have on ex-offenders and their communities, especially those that have historically been the most severely affected by these disadvantages. Consequently, the pandemic demonstrated an urgent need for relief from the heavy burden of having a criminal record—specifically, relief that is broadly available, widely accessible, and effective for all ex-offenders.
Measures intended to ease the burden of having a criminal record have picked up steam in legislatures across the country over the last several years—a trend that will undoubtedly continue as the detrimental effects of collateral consequences continue to become more visible to the general public. However, there are concerns that many of these enacted and proposed mechanisms may be less accessible or helpful to certain groups of ex-offenders; which can have the effect of exacerbating existing socioeconomic and racial inequities. It is critical that future efforts to mitigate the oppressive effects of collateral consequences sufficiently account for the many structural, systemic, and multidimensional race and class inequities that are inextricably intertwined with the American criminal justice system and frequently impact reintegration outcomes. As part of its response to the pandemic, the federal government should enact an expungement statute that places a distinct focus on equity. Reintegration measures that are equitably available and effective benefit not only those individuals with criminal records, but all of society, which is particularly important as the nation begins to rebuild in the wake of the current public health and economic crises.