My research suggests that’s true. While Americans say they support equal opportunities for those returning to society, they may have in mind a lower-grade American Dream.
People returning from prison want the usual things from their lives
My research aimed to answer two questions. First, how do people who are returning to society define successful reentry? And second, do people in the community support those goals?
To answer the first question, I interviewed 67 men, ages 18 to 66, who were housed in reentry units at two prisons in the Northeast from 2019 through 2020. The men had committed a variety of criminal offenses. I coded interview transcripts and categorized what they most frequently said they wanted upon return. They wanted what most Americans say they want: to be able to own their own homes, drive nice cars and take their families on vacation, among other things. Several wanted to be doctors and lawyers, prestigious careers by American standards. Many also said they wanted to give their children opportunities that they hadn’t had, like the chance to go to a prestigious college.
I then used these most frequently mentioned definitions of successful reentry to create a survey.
Americans don’t think people returning to society should have such aspirations
In February 2020, I posted the survey experiment online and recruited 637 people to participate through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. I randomly divided the survey takers into nine groups. Everyone was asked to read a paragraph-long profile of a fictional person before taking the survey, but each group read a different profile. In some of the profiles, the individual had a White-sounding name or a Black-sounding name. Some had spent time in prison, while others had not. In addition to whether the individual had served prison time, I also varied the length of the sentences.
The survey asked which career the profiled person should aim for, what kind of school they should send their children to and whether that person’s vision of the American Dream necessarily included things like owning a car or a home.
Survey respondents downgraded what people who had spent time in prison should expect, compared with those who had not — considering it less important for them to be able to own a car, buy a home, travel or enjoy their jobs. For example, respondents were 46 percent 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.
Survey respondents imagined a more limited American Dream not just for formerly incarcerated people, but for their children as well. Respondents were 23 percent less likely to think that children of incarcerated people should go to prestigious universities when compared with children of non-incarcerated individuals.
In other words, these results suggest that Americans might not think people who’ve once been incarcerated deserve equal access to good-paying jobs, prestigious careers and homeownership, one important way individuals build wealth. And the stigma against them may be passed on to their children.
Does it really matter?
Even if Biden achieves criminal justice reform, negative public sentiment toward those who’ve served time may mean that their second chance will be at a second-class American Dream. Research suggests that people who successfully reintegrate back into their communities are less likely to offend again or return to prison, making communities safer.
If the Biden administration wants to enable full reintegration for those leaving prison, it may wish to find a way to build public support. The criminal justice system disproportionately targets poor and minority individuals, further destabilizing these marginalized communities. If these disparate effects continue after release and even into the next generation, institutionalized race and class disadvantages continue unchecked. 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.
Esther Matthews is a PhD candidate and adjunct professor in justice, law and criminology at American University.