"Collateral Consequences" of the Criminal Legal System: An Overview

Interacting with police, being arrested, and being incarcerated change the course of a person’s life and do harm far beyond the confines of a prison sentence. The fallout from criminal legal involvement— sometimes known as “collateral consequences” or “enmeshed penalties”— are far-reaching and permeate every corner of a person’s life. Even years after being arrested or completing a sentence, these consequences destabilize a person’s livelihood, home, and safety. 

Public defenders are the only legal system actors with the necessary trust, proximity, and knowledge to prevent or mitigate the collateral consequences associated with arrest and incarceration. They are positioned upstream, giving them the unique opportunity to intervene early; require no opt-in requirement (i.e. no-barrier entry); possess legally-enshrined confidentiality; have a constitutional duty to serve the individual; and can build the relationship necessary to identify underlying causes of contact with the legal system. 

This means that public defenders are also one of the best-positioned system actors to stave off or lessen collateral consequences. They are incentivized to familiarize themselves fully with the world of enmeshed penalties so as to better advise their clients on the consequences of a legal matter, and therefore well-positioned to educate other system stakeholders like judges and prosecutors on the true consequences of their actions. For example, a “good” deal that reduces jail time might also come with a side effect of permanent exclusion from a client’s home or line of work—a life sentence masquerading as a slap on the wrist. By raising the true consequences of conviction, defenders can shut off the ability of the system as a whole to remain willfully unconscious of its own downstream effects. This not only helps stabilize the lives of public defender clients and their families, but also improves public safety by reducing recidivism and breaking cycles of incarceration and instability. 

Over 45,000 known collateral consequences exist, though the number is likely even higher. These consequences vary by jurisdiction and state, often overlapping and compounding, making them incredibly complicated to navigate. A shocking 62% of these consequences limit access to employment or occupational licenses, which is particularly disturbing as economic stability is perhaps the most stabilizing factor for successful re-entry. The remaining 38% impact education, access to government benefits, housing, family and domestic rights, immigration and travel, political and civic participation, and more. This report offers a brief overview of some of the most common examples of collateral consequences.

Click below for our full overview.

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