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A Penn professor found that people with criminal records suffer the same level of stigma regardless of how severe their crimes were.

Credit: Julio Sosa

Getting arrested or convicted of a crime is bad, but as a recent Penn study points out, the long term effects of having a criminal record can make it even worse.

Criminology professor Charles Loeffler recently conducted a study on the impacts of living with a criminal record. He and colleague Simone Ispa-Landa of Northwestern University interviewed 53 subjects, all of whom were enrolled at a legal clinic help desk in a courthouse.

"This study was designed to figure out what the experience of living with a criminal record was like and how that experience might differ depending on the extent of the criminal record," Loeffler said. "These were all people who were trying to have their records expunged, or cleared."

When the researchers began this study, they expected to see differences in experience among the subjects, depending on the severity of their records. Surprisingly, this did not seem to be the case. Those with less serious or extensive legal troubles seemed to experience just as much difficulty as those with longer, more severe records.

"The fact that everyone reported experiencing a lot of difficulties moving past their records is what would be the unanticipated finding of the study," Loeffler said.

He also added that in the past, there were ways for people to bypass some of the stigma associated with criminal records over time. Now, he said, it is not so simple.

"With the increased availability and accessibility of criminal records and criminal history record information today, it seems that those older processes of stigma erosion are not functioning," he explained, "particularly for those with the less serious or less extensive contacts."

The problem was not necessarily that potential employers were troubled by the social stigma that comes with a criminal record; In fact, some of the subjects were actually sent to the help desk by potential employers so that they could try to have their records expunged and considered for certain job positions.

"Although employers could be sympathetic to their situation," Loeffler said, "They often reported that there was sort of a uniform hiring policy against people with those records."

Currently, according to Loeffler, there is a significant amount of research on different methods and policies to lessen the impact of a criminal record on job prospects. One such policy is something called "Ban the Box."

"The alternative people are talking about is Ban the Box as an alternative policy where employers are restricted from asking on an additional employment application about someone’s criminal record," Loeffler explained.  

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