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The Journal Gazette

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Wednesday, January 10, 2018 1:00 am


Arresting numbers

Felony rate may mirror state's other issues

It's a snapshot in time, and that time was more than seven years ago. But a University of Georgia study that looked at the number of people with felony convictions nationally contained an unsettling statistic for those concerned about Indiana's future. In 2010, the study showed, 11.6 percent of voting-age Hoosiers had a felony record – the third-highest percentage in the nation.

Only Georgia, at 15 percent, and Florida, at 14.2 percent, were ahead of Indiana.

Rachel Blakeman, director of IPFW's Community Research Institute, is concerned by the numbers, though she cautioned against reading too much into them.

“We don't have information about what has happened in the last seven years,” she noted in an interview Tuesday. It's possible the percentage of felons has dropped, here and across the nation, as Indiana and other states have reclassified some crimes. But it's also possible the percentage has increased; numbers from 2010 don't reflect the impact of the opioid crisis.

The questions the study raises are significant for a state that's trying to develop its workforce, grow businesses and attract new ones.

As an article on the study in Pew Charitable Trusts' Stateline Daily noted, the stigma of a felony conviction directly affects individuals.

“Gary Mohr, who heads Ohio's Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said a felony conviction can have lifelong consequences, no matter whether the punishment is imprisonment or probation,” Stateline reported. “ 'Even probation or a six-month sentence is really a life sentence because it affects jobs, it affects housing, it affects everything in their lives,' Mohr said.”

“It's clearly a drag on the economy,” Blakeman said. If there are more felons applying for work and being turned down, she said, that could help explain why “we have jobs in northeast Indiana that are not being filled.”

The study showed the percentage of felons grew in every state between 1980 and 2010. But in some states, the percentage grew much more rapidly.

Blakeman was particularly startled by Indiana's standing in the Midwest.

“There's some pretty large disparities between Indiana and the surrounding states,” she said. For instance, the study showed 6.15 percent of voting-age residents in Michigan were felons.

The numbers in the study dovetail with high incarceration rates. They play a part in the alarming rise in prime-working-age men who are unemployed or who have given up looking for work. They may help explain the rise in so-called “deaths of despair” from alcohol and drugs, Blakeman suggested.

More recent data, and more detail, are needed if we are to fully understand the impact of the high felony rate on our state and its workforce.

It's clear minorities are disproportionately affected. According to the study, an estimated 3 percent of adults have been in prison, but the rate for African-American men is 15 percent. There's no data yet on gender breakdowns or comparisons between urban and rural areas, Blakeman said.

“Also, we don't know what kind of felonies” are most represented during the period studied, Blakeman said. “Is it a change in enforcement, or are we making new activities criminal?”

The nature of a felony might make a big difference in how a job applicant is perceived, Blakeman said. Though some kinds of jobs, such as attorneys or law enforcement officers, might be off limits to any felon, some employers are able to meet their needs by easing restrictions on hiring those who have been convicted only of nonviolent felonies. 

Things may have changed, and more study is needed. But for Indiana, the University of Georgia study suggests a problem far too big to ignore.