How decades of criminal records hold back towns like Ferguson

Recent polling shows that white Americans and African-Americans have completely different perspectives on recent events in Ferguson, Mo., with just 37 percent of whites saying that the police shooting raises important issues about race, compared to 80 percent of African Americans.

In a way, this isn't surprising, given how many more blacks have direct experience with the criminal justice system. In fact, roughly 24 percent of African-Americans in Missouri have been convicted of a felony, according to unpublished estimates by academic researchers.

"Almost a fourth of African American residents statewide have shared this experience that relatively few whites have shared," said the University of Minnesota's Christopher Uggen, one of the researchers. "It makes for a situation where you have great tensions, and a sense of us and them."

The number of people jailed or placed on probation for offenses such as robbery, fraud and possession of drugs has increased dramatically over the past four decades. Many may have simply pleaded guilty to receive probation instead of a prison sentence, but their criminal records will constrain them for the rest of their lives anyway. A conviction might effectively disqualify someone who is applying for college or for a job, and criminal records are also part of why there are so few blacks in police forces and local governments in towns such as Ferguson.

In other words, being arrested, tried and sent to prison doesn't only change how a person views law enforcement generally. It can also give someone a sense that they are excluded from society more generally, even after they've served their time.

The figures for Missouri are close to the averages for the country as a whole, according to Uggen and his colleagues. About 8 percent of the U.S. population of all races are felons. For black men specifically, the national average is above 33 percent.

It's safe to assume that in the relatively impoverished suburb of Ferguson, where two thirds of residents are black and the unemployment rate exceeded 13 percent during the recession, the proportion of felons in the population is even higher, Uggen said.

Those convicted of drug crimes cannot receive student loans, food stamps, and public housing in many states. Licensing boards and state laws often bar convicted felons from entering occupations such as hairstyling.

Missouri's laws are designed to prevent convicts from being turned away from work. Still, even in the absence of specific restrictions, many firms choose not to hire applicants who have been convicted of a crime -- or even people who were arrested, cleared and promptly released, if their arrests are still on the record.

Uggen argues that such rules are dangerous to public safety, because they make it difficult for recently released prisoners to make honest money.

Another profession barred to many with a felony conviction is policing. Since the death of Michael Brown, the young man whose killing began the demonstrations in Ferguson, law enforcement agencies in St. Louis County have been criticized for their lack of racial diversity.

Restrictions on felons' civil rights are also relevant to the crisis there. As Seth Masket and other commentators have observed, Ferguson's city council has no black members, and the frustrated black community there seems to feel that itselected representatives don't understand itsconcerns.

Missouri state law typically disallows convicted felons from holding office or from serving on juries. The state also bars felons from voting until they have completed probation and are "off paper," that is, no longer under correctional supervision. That law disenfranchises about 7 percent of the state's blacks, Uggen and his colleagues have estimated in previous research.

Uggen said that the combined effect of these restrictions is not only to punish felons, but also the towns and cities where they live.

"It makes it extremely difficult for people who share this conviction history to really take root as citizens and to take up the adult roles we expect from citizens -- as workers, as parents, and as active members of their communities," he said.

Whites and blacks may never see Brown's death in the same way, but truly allowing people with criminal histories back into society would represent small progress toward reconciliation.

Further reading:

  • When relations between police and the citizenry break down, is calling up the National Guard a solution?
  • A chart showing other cities where the police are white and the residents are black.
  • The good news is that Ferguson is a racially integrated town in the sense that whites and blacks live in the same neighborhoods.
Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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