U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine meeting with local officials to discuss criminal justice reform. Photo by Senator Tim Kaine, Flickr CC

According to a new report, rates of felony conviction are on the rise in the United States. In response, policy influencers in many states are seeking strategies to combat this increase. However, solutions often unveil further challenges. A recent article from PBS discusses a new study on the rise of felony punishments on a state-by-state basis, as well as the barriers to policy reform.

From 1980 to 2010, felony convictions increased in every state. Sociologist Michelle Phelps discusses the context behind these high rates: 

“When crime rates rose in the 1980s and early 1990s, local and state leaders hired more police and they made more arrests, including felony arrests… In addition, many states elevated nonviolent crimes like drug possession to felony status, and many district attorneys adopted a get-tough strategy, seeking felony charges whenever possible. Police focused drug enforcement on high-crime neighborhoods, which were often predominantly African-American…As a result, felony convictions rose much faster among blacks than among whites.”

In an effort to combat high incarceration rates, states like Georgia have tried replacing prison sentences with probation. But as Phelps points out, probation can be just as damaging as serving a prison term since, in addition to having a criminal record, individuals on probation must also abide by additional rules and requirements:

“Though it’s frequently dismissed as a slap on the wrist, probation can entail onerous requirements…For instance, probation can require a job and good housing as a condition for staying out of prison, but the felony conviction itself can make it hard or impossible to get that job.”

In sum, policymakers searching for new ways to bring felony numbers down must consider unintended consequences of reforms — especially when reforms have the potential to reinforce or worsen deeply structural racial inequalities.