Criminal Justice

Leaving prison? Dial down the aspirations, don't try to be lawyers or doctors, survey respondents say

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Should former prisoners pursue prestigious careers and home ownership? A survey suggests that people think the American dream should be more limited for this group of people.

The online survey of 637 people divided the respondents into nine groups, with each one getting a different profile of a fictional person. Some of the fictional people had spent time in prison, and some had not.

The February 2020 survey, posted Monday at SSRN, then asked about what type of aspirations the different fictional people should have.

The Washington Post has a March 15 story on the results, written by Esther Matthews, a PhD candidate who developed the survey and is an adjunct professor in justice, law and criminology at the American University.

She found that survey respondents downgraded what ex-cons should expect, compared with those who didn’t spend time in prison. The respondents considered it less important for the former prisoners to own a car, buy a home, travel and enjoy their jobs. The respondents also thought career aspirations should be lower.

“For example,” Matthews wrote in the Washington Post, “respondents were 46% less likely to think that people who had criminal records should try to become doctors or lawyers than those without. Instead, respondents were more likely to think people who had once been in prison should aim for careers such as roofers or warehouse employees.”

The negative attitudes expressed by the respondents suggest that reentry programs could face obstacles, Matthews wrote. Community support is important for people reintegrating into society to succeed.

“Helping to undo public stigma against those with a criminal record could make the criminal justice system more equitable, while making communities safer and stronger,” Matthews wrote.

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