Going to College with a Criminal Record: Who’s Afraid of Whom?

Approximately one third of homicides go unsolved in America. Almost sixty percent of reported rapes never result in prosecution (much less a conviction). And only slightly more than one in ten auto thefts are ever resolved. (All data from the FBI.) So maybe you should worry about what happens when your classmate is a former inmate, but probably not as much as you think. Or at least, only as much as you’re worrying about what happens when your classuniversity-105709_640mate has committed a crime for which s/he was never arrested or convicted — because for every person who is prosecuted, many others are never caught. In other words: not much.

Hand-wringing aside, our policies are starting to catch up with the facts. Today, the U.S. Department of Education announced a proposal with a set of recommendations to minimize inquiries about conviction histories in the college application process in order to improve college access for those who have criminal records.

Many of our current policies are built on a false duality that divides the world neatly into good people and bad people: college students are good people and former inmates are bad people. Young people suspended from school through the operation of “zero tolerance” discipline practices are just kids caught up in the school-to-prison pipeline, but young people serving sentences in corrections facilities are criminals who need to learn a lesson. And this tidy set of categories helps us manage a reality that otherwise makes us very uncomfortable.

Because the truth is that these are the same people, and the line between “good” and “bad” runs down the center of each of us. Many of us who made some very bad decisions were never caught, were driven home by an officer who didn’t want to get involved, or we were able to avoid incarceration and have our records sealed. I know a surgeon who’s been arrested twice, once as a kid for breaking into his school gym to play basketball, and once as an adult for a confrontation in a bar. I’d trust him with my life (and maybe you already have). A law school classmate of mine spent most of his adolescence incarcerated. Now he’s an attorney at a national nonprofit, working to pass legislation to keep young people out of the adult justice system. “Former inmate,” like “felon,” might be a factually correct label, but it’s not a meaningful data point. It doesn’t describe a public safety risk and it’s certainly not a valid proxy for “person who has committed a crime.”

I suspect that many of you — maybe you yourself — have stories like these. We don’t often tell them because the stigma associated with incarceration is so pervasive and marginalizing, but it doesn’t have to be. If we consider the statistics about our jails and prisons — and we realize that nearly every one of those incarcerated people has a dad, a son, a sister, a wife, or a teacher — we can extrapolate that incarceration affects millions of people. Freeing ourselves from language habits that prioritize easy shorthand over accuracy and integrity changes the way that countless people move through society. (Including me. A person I love sits in a California state prison today.)

People who were incarcerated are our families, our coworkers, and our neighbors. They might also be our classmates. The Beyond the Box recommendations help to direct more of our energy and resources towards figuring out how to support them.