What happens when young people go to jail? Well, the answer is a lot more complicated than you might initially realize. First, it depends on where the crime is committed, the type of crime committed, and the person’s age when she or he committed the crime.
Location is important because nearly everything depends on the state wherein you commit the crime. Every state has its own rules and laws; therefore, if you commit a crime in New Jersey, and someone else commits the same crime Pennsylvania, the two of you could be punished very differently. In addition to how location affects punishment, the nature of the crime affects the situation. The nature of the crime determines whether the offense is considered a “minor” crime, a misdemeanor or a “major” crime, a felony. Whether a crime falls into one category or the other depends on the potential punishment. If a law stipulates that a particular crime requires imprisonment for longer than a year, it is usually considered a felony. If the potential punishment is for a year or less, then the crime is considered a misdemeanor. In some states, certain crimes are known as “wobblers,” which means the charge could go either way depending on the circumstances. Finally, the person’s age when they commit the crime is important because that has a significant impact on the severity of the punishment because lawmakers have some reservations about the long-term repercussions of criminal convictions at an early age.
There are more consequences! I would argue that the time that a person spends in jail or prison is only half of the consequence. The other half is the life-long stigma that goes along with it. Aside from extremely minor incidents like parking tickets, when a person has any interaction with the criminal justice system a permanent AND PUBLIC record is created. Arrests, felony and misdemeanor convictions, and infractions for anyone over 18 years old are available for anybody to find. In some instances, even the records of crimes committed when a person was under 18 years old are available as public records.
You might ask, “What difference does it make that people can find out about someone’s criminal past?”. I’m glad you asked! It makes it VERY DIFFICULT to get a job or enjoy certain other types of benefits. A major part of the reason that it is so difficult to get a job is that there is this concept called “negligent retention”. Essentially, it means that an employer takes a risk to hire a personal with a criminal background because the law says previous legal issues demonstrate that it is likely that you will commit another crime in the future. If you do, the employer can be sued for your actions. For example, if you stole something, you pose a threat to any job that creates a situation wherein you have access to things that you might steal. If your crime involved violence, intent to be violent, or a weapon, you are considered a threat to people in general, including your co-workers and your job’s customers. Why would an employer take that kind of risk? If you commit a drug offense, the federal government excludes you from all sorts of government assistance like college financial aid or assistance to attend technical school. In addition to the lifelong stigma, you lose certain rights like the following:
Voting privileges (14 states permanently revoke the right to vote to ex-convicts);
25 states restrict the right to hold public office;
Security clearances for certain professions (teaching, working with children, security);
Cannot obtain a passport or a visa for entry into certain countries;
Convicts are pulled into police line-ups as a potential suspect;
Cannot legally obtain firearms;
Loss of federal financial aid money for college in drug related convictions; and
Parenting rights can be taken away (custody, visiting rights).
If you change your life, how do you prove it? Actually, on paper, you cannot. Once you have a record of criminal activity, very little can be done to remove that information. The process of removing criminal information is called expungement which means your record is sealed. Having your records sealed enables you to honestly say that you’ve never had that experience. Although this option is “out there”, it is not automatic or guaranteed, even after a prolonged period of time. Additionally, it also depends on the rules of state where you committed the crime. Some states don’t allow expungement for certain crimes under any circumstances. Ultimately, the only way a person’s criminal history will stop following them will be for the governments of our country to change the rules and laws. Can you hold your breath that long?