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What are 'collateral consequences' in the criminal justice system?

Could you afford to drop all of your obligations, without notice, for a few days? For a week or a month? Could you stop showing up for work, stop taking care of your children and somehow expect everything to be ok when you returned? Most of us would answer: "No way."

Such a scenario sounds ridiculous, but it is the reality that countless families experience every year when someone they know and love has been arrested and held in jail. These alleged offenders have not been tried, some have not even been charged with crimes. Yet the collateral consequences of these run-ins with the law can last for years.

The New York Times recently ran a piece about "collateral victims" of America's criminal justice system. Times correspondent Shaila Dewan notes that prosecutors are often very reluctant to pursue cases against law-breaking corporations (especially financial ones) because innocent people could be harmed in the process.

Yet the same level of restraint is not shown when it comes to prosecuting individuals. As a result, children, families, workplaces and communities suffer serious collateral consequences. From 1991 to 2007, the percentage of American children with incarcerated mothers more than doubled. It isn't difficult to imagine the kind of financial, emotional and psychological consequences that children may face for the rest of their lives because of a parent's incarceration.

Sadly, the collateral consequences of the criminal justice system are most likely to impact those who are already at risk: low-income families and minorities. And a conviction on your record (and sometimes just an arrest) can make it harder to get a job, rent an apartment or volunteer at your child's school.

This is not to say that people shouldn't be prosecuted. Indeed, prosecution is very necessary and appropriate in some cases. But for low-level offenses, civil matters and incidents with a likely racial component, perhaps a different approach is needed.

According to one federal estimate, about one-third of Americans have a criminal record of some sort. The other two-thirds may not be entirely law-abiding - just fortunate to have never been caught. It may be time for prosecutors to start considering the collateral consequences of many individual prosecutions, not just those for corporations.

45 minutes. Needs title and links but otherwise ready.

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