The rising rate of felony convictions nationwide is affecting how states are addressing crime today. However, the number of felons varies wildly because of differences in how states handled crime. Let’s look at some of the hard data on felony convictions before discussing what a number of states are doing to address crime.
The Hard Data
In the 1980s, 1% to 5% of adults were classified as felons. Every state has had a growing share of its population classified as felons, but the rate of increase varies wildly. In Georgia, four percent of adults had a felony in 1980 while nearly 15% are considered felons today. In Texas, Florida, Indiana and Louisiana, over 10% of adults have at least one felony on their record.
In 1980, fewer than two million people were on parole, probation or in prison. In 2010, the total surpassed seven million. In 2015, there were one and a half million people in prison and almost two million on felony probation.
One way of getting tough on crime was to reclassify offenses as felonies that used to be misdemeanors. Some states were more aggressive in this regard than others. That probably explains why data on felony statistics stemming from an Intelius study show nearly 27,000 felons in North Carolina while much more populous Florida has nearly 12,000. Wisconsin stood out for the sheer number of offenses it upgraded to felonies, resulting in Wisconsin having roughly 35,000 felons while nearby Ohio has merely 2,000.
This means that states downgrading felonies to misdemeanors would reduce the felony conviction rate. Georgia did this in 2012 by raising the felony theft threshold from $500 to $1500. Other states are raising these felony thresholds to keep up with inflation, something that incidentally reduces felony convictions. Right now, that threshold ranges from $200 in Florida to $2500 in Texas.
Easing the Path for Felons Back to Society
Several states are taking the opposite tack and making it easier for convicted felons to move beyond the felony conviction; something that affects housing, employment, and many other aspects of life. These steps include restoring voting rights for felons and attempting to limit employers’ ability to discriminate against applicants with a criminal record.
The Ban the Box movement does agree that jobs with more stringent vetting requirements in law enforcement, education and civil service can and should run background checks, including criminal background checks. For all other positions, they want to prohibit running such background checks until after the candidate has been interviewed, increasing the odds they’d be hired. The Ban the Box movement states that employment is the best way to reduce recidivism among felons.
Texas has considered legislation to make it possible for felons to have their criminal record sealed, essentially causing it to drop off the records. The state passed a law in 2015 providing legal immunity to landlords who choose to rent to felons, making it easier for convicted felons to find housing. The state took the lead in 2009 by making it easier for felons to qualify for occupational licensing, opening up jobs to them.
While the nation got tough on crime over the past few decades, the impact varies wildly. The nation is slowly starting to address the root causes and rectify over-reactions in some places.