Public Benefits Access and the Criminal System

Access to public benefits may be an under-appreciated public safety mechanism. When people are able to pay their rent, support their families, not go hungry, have a roof over their heads, and have access to healthcare, they are less likely to engage in crime.

More than 1 in 5 Americans relies on government assistance every month, but nearly all Americans have received some form of money or resources from the government to help with financial stability. Government assistance can be a powerful poverty-reduction tool, but the people who are arguably most in need of financial assistance—a group that faces unique and institutionalized barriers to economic stability, housing security, and health—often cannot access it. 

Losing access to public benefits is one of the most prominent and cruel collateral consequences of a criminal conviction. The National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction lists over 1,000 collateral consequences related to government benefits. Denial of access to government aid exacerbates the existing barriers to stability formerly incarcerated people face. Preventing people from accessing help further entrenches poverty, thus threatening public safety. And the truth is that these bans don’t deter crime: in fact, most of the people who lose benefits as a result of a conviction didn’t even know that was a potential consequence of their alleged crime.,

A more effective public safety intervention would be to ensure that formerly incarcerated people, like all other Americans, have access to the government aid they need, while shrinking the footprint of the criminal legal system to alleviate poverty and promote stability.

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