Criminal Records Keep Creating Obstacles Long After Incarceration

A new report from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is shedding light on some unexpected consequences of being convicted of a crime — everything from troubles with employment to bans in public housing. The group says it's time to start thinking about forgiveness.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa block. More than 65 million Americans have some kind of rap sheet. That's more than one in four adults. Criminal records follow people for the rest of their lives, and those black marks can hurt chances for housing and employment. Well today a new report says it's time to start thinking about forgiveness. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has the story.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers spent three years studying what they call, collateral consequences. There are thousands of sometimes hidden penalties that touch people who run afoul of the law.

CHRISTINE LEONARD: How far can that go? Well, in New York State alone, the laws are so extraordinary you can't be a bingo caller in New York State if you have a conviction.

JOHNSON: Christine Leonard of the Vera Institute of Justice is trying to remove some of those barriers. Lately Leonard says she's been urging public housing authorities to stop automatically excluding people convicted of crimes. Instead she says those candidates should be considered on an individual case-by-case basis. Housing remains an obstacle often a crisis for people returning home from jail or prison. But even former inmates who thought they had perfectly arranged their future run into surprises.

LAMONT CAREY: I've been home almost 13 years. Awards and recognition from the Senate and Congress, the community.

JOHNSON: Lamont Carey is a poet and public speaker from Washington DC. Carey committed several felonies as a teenager but he says he's followed the law since the age of 16.

CAREY: I'm used in several senses as an example of what somebody coming home can achieve - can be - but I can't even go on a trip with my son.

JOHNSON: Recently Carey volunteered to chaperone his son's class trip to the zoo. But the school rejected him after a fingerprint and background check. Arrest and conviction records are everywhere these days. They're for sale online and they can be outdated and inaccurate. And that says Norman Reimer is one reason why his criminal defense lawyer group is calling on state and federal lawmakers to think about forgiveness.

NORMAN REIMER: Transgressions that may define the low point in a person's life should not define the rest of that person's life.

JOHNSON: The new report says people should be able to restore their rights and status for jobs that require licenses, barbers, truck drivers, after they have finished their prison time. More than 19 million Americans have felony convictions on their records and each of them has a story to tell. Consider Mark O'Brien. During his last semester in law school after a night of drinking, O'Brien says he got behind the wheel for a long drive home. His girlfriend Laura, next to him.

MARK O'BRIEN: I flipped my car on I97 and killed Laura that night.

JOHNSON: O'Brien was convicted of negligent homicide and served some time. White, and with legal training O'Brien emerged with more advantages than most former inmates. He now works for the Legal Action Center, an organization that helps connect people to housing and jobs after prison.

O'BRIEN: Do we want live in a country where people have second chances? Do we want to live in a country where we believe in redemption and that people can improve their lives? Or do we want to the country where a single mistake or several mistakes, youthful mistakes sometimes, follow a person for the rest of their lives?

JOHNSON: O'Brien says he hopes today's report starts a conversation about how we treat former inmates and how we give them a shot at redemption. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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