Collateral consequences are restrictions that limit or prohibit a convicted person's access to opportunities and rights afforded to those without a criminal history. Collateral consequences can affect many aspects of a person's life – from education to employment – making it difficult to reintegrate into society and sustain themselves even after completing their sentence.
Unlike criminal penalties, such as incarceration and fines, collateral consequences are not formally imposed at the time of sentencing. Rather, they stem from state, local, and/or federal laws and regulations and private sector practices and policies.
Tens of thousands of collateral consequences exist. Although a convicted individual may not be subject to all of them, even facing one prohibition or limitation can make it difficult for a person to move forward with their life. Sadly, not many people are aware of the lasting, debilitating effects of a conviction. Neither judges nor prosecutors are legally required to inform a defendant of collateral consequences (except for deportation consequences) of a guilty plea or verdict. Because there are so many collateral consequences spread through laws and policies, it would not be feasible to list them all during an arraignment or any part of a criminal case.
Categories of Collateral Consequences
One of the justifications for establishing laws and policies placing restrictions on individuals with criminal histories is that doing such reduces the risk the person poses to society's safety. While that may apply to some collateral consequences – for instance, prohibiting people convicted of violent crimes to possess firearms – not all collateral consequences are directly related to the offense the person was convicted of. Some seem only to make it hard for the individual to re-enter and reintegrate into society.
Below are just a few areas in which collateral consequences are apparent:
- Employment: A person with a criminal history may face barriers when seeking employment in both the public and private sectors. For instance, individuals convicted of certain crimes are prohibited from holding federal office, and felons cannot serve in the armed forces. Also, although many states have laws barring private employers from asking about convictions on employment applications, that does not prevent them from denying a candidate with a criminal history. Company policies may be in place that allow candidates to be screened out during the hiring process.
- Professional licensure: Many careers require those practicing in the field to obtain and maintain a professional license. However, licensing board regulations may make so that a person convicted of a crime may be denied proper certifications. Or, if they already hold a professional license, it may be suspended.
- Public or private housing: Individuals convicted of drug crimes may be ineligible for federally subsidized housing. Additionally, private landlords may be reluctant to rent property to someone with a criminal history, regardless of the offense.
- Government benefits: A drug crime conviction can render a person ineligible for many government benefits, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and federal financial aid for higher education.
Social Implications of Collateral Consequences
Collateral consequences have severe personal and economic impacts. The convicted individual can have trouble getting a job, finding a place to live, and accessing benefits that would allow them to take care of their essential needs. These restrictions can lead to increased homelessness and, in some cases, may cause the person to re-offend, as they might return to criminal behavior to take care of themselves.
However, it's not just the individual alone who is affected by collateral consequences. The person's family may also feel the impact. For instance, without gainful employment, the person may be unable to feed their family or provide a home for them.
Collateral consequences can impact society in a couple of ways. First, an ex-offender might re-engage in criminal behavior to sustain themselves, putting members of the community at risk of being victim of a crime. Also, the costs for prosecuting and re-incarcerating the individuals come out of taxpayers' pockets.
The effects of a misdemeanor or felony conviction are multifaceted and lasting. That is why it is crucial for anyone charged with a crime to immediately contact a criminal defense attorney and take steps toward protecting their rights and future.