How the U.S. Could Improve Life After Incarceration

The United States imprisons more people than any other country, and as many as one in three American adults have some type of criminal record. Unfortunately, incarceration carries a lifetime of consequences. According to the Center for American Progress, report, “One Strike and You’re Out,” having even a minor criminal record can be a life sentence to poverty, presenting obstacles to employment, housing, education and training, public assistance, financial empowerment, and more.

The report shows that the consequences and stigma of having a criminal record are in contrast to research documenting that once an individual with a prior nonviolent conviction has stayed crime-free for three to four years, that person’s risk of recidivism is no different from that of the general population. It makes sense for the United States to come up with policies to ensure that Americans with criminal records have a fair shot at making a decent living, providing for their families, and becoming productive members of society.

The following are some ways our country is trying to help:

Currently, ex-inmates have trouble finding employment.  Rectifying the situation requires educating the public and employers about how hiring ex-offenders can benefit society, especially when the crime was nonviolent or drug-related, and the individual remains drug-free and has relevant work experience inside or outside of prison.

On April 25, 2012, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued its Enforcement Guidance on the Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Decisions Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Applying to all employers that have 15 or more employees, the Guidance does not prohibit employers from obtaining or using arrest or conviction records to make employment decisions, but seeks to ensure that such information is not used in a discriminatory way. Employers should not treat job applicants or employees with the same criminal records differently because of their race, national origin, or another protected characteristic (disparate treatment discrimination), or if it is not “job related and consistent with business necessity.”

There are also employer obligations in the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Employers that might use a criminal history report to deny an application for employment, must provide a copy of the report and a document called A Summary of Your Rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act before taking the adverse action.

In addition, there is now a campaign to “Ban the Box,” which would have employers remove the box on job applications that requires applicants to disclose criminal records, and allow the subject to be addressed only later on in the employment process.

There are only two convictions for which a Public Housing Authority (PHA) MUST prohibit admission to public housing: When any member of the household is subject to a lifetime registration requirement under a State sex offender registration program; and, When any household member has been convicted of drug-related criminal activity for manufacture or production of methamphetamine on the premises of federally assisted housing.

PHAs must also prohibit admission for three years if a household member has been evicted from federally assisted housing for drug- related criminal activity, if any household member is currently engaged in illegal use of a drug, or if  the PHA has reasonable cause to believe that a pattern of illegal drug use may threaten other residents.

In general, restrictions on federal student aid eligibility are removed for formerly incarcerated individuals. The Department of Education has a Second Chance Pell pilot program, through which an estimated 12,000 eligible incarcerated individuals can now receive Pell Grants to pursue postsecondary education, although they may not receive federal consolidation loans. Although these grants are difficult to obtain while incarcerated, upon release, most eligibility limitations will be removed.

Food Stamps
Section 115 of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 prohibited states from providing Food Stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — SNAP) to individuals convicted of drug felonies unless the state passes legislation to extend benefits to these individuals. Only the following six states have kept the ban entirely in place: Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and West Virginia. All other states, including Illinois, have modified the ban or have eliminated it entirely.

Voting Rights
While almost all states restrict the voting rights of persons with felony convictions, most states automatically restore that right once a person is no longer incarcerated or once they complete probation or parole. An ex-prisoner whose voting rights have been restored will often have to re-register to vote.

Health Benefits
States may suspend Medicaid eligibility coverage during incarceration, enabling an individual to remain enrolled in the state Medicaid program and making it easier to obtain Medicaid services following release.
The Veterans Administration (VA) cannot treat veterans while they are incarcerated, but veterans who are ex-prisoners and are otherwise eligible for VA health care, may enroll and receive health care.  The only exception applies to veterans with an open warrant for a felony offense.


In the United States, ex-offenders are released with significant obstacles that indirectly push them back to crime and the prison system. There needs to be additional awareness of the problem and additional programs to help improve life after incarceration. Call us today for your free consultation at 630-305-0222 or contact our team online.

Attorney Marc Wolfe

Marc Wolfe has been representing clients in criminal matters in Chicago and the entire State of Illinois for over 30 years. Mr. Wolfe has tried over 300 cases to verdict and represents clients facing investigation or prosecution for a broad range of state and federal criminal offenses, including murder, embezzlement, sexual abuse, drugs, marijuana and white collar crimes. [ Attorney Bio ]