Houston, TX

Rice University alumnus advocates for Americans with criminal records

Marisol Gallagher

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HOUSTON, TX — Ames Grawert, an alumnus of Rice University, has been a part of the esteemed Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit law and public policy institute based in the New York University Law School, for quite a while now. Back in 2016, he became a senior counsel at Brennan, and he conducts research on incarceration disparities while advocating for criminal justice reform.

The first major project that Grawert took on at the Brennan Center was to conduct research on the financial consequences of a criminal conviction. From that study, he found out that 1 in every 5 Americans has a criminal record. That number amounts to nearly 70 million people. And for these people, life gets even harder even after they’ve served their sentence. People with misdemeanor convictions, for example, make 16 percent less in annual earnings.

People may think that charges of a misdemeanor are no big deal, but being convicted for even a minor crime affects the earnings for the rest of a person’s life. People with a criminal record face more challenges in getting employed, having proper housing, and basic services. Plus, since people of color make up a disproportionate share of the American people in jails, the economic burden of imprisonment falls on Black people and Latinos.

To fix the existing racial and economic disparities of a criminal conviction, Grawert along with his colleagues at the Brenna Center made recommendations for policymakers. “Clean slate” laws automatically seal the criminal records of people who have served their time completing their sentences, and it can help prevent discrimination against people who were formerly incarcerated. Six states have adopted these laws, including Utah, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Additionally, the legalization of marijuana, which has been done in 16 states, would decrease the number of low-level arrests and convictions. Reducing the nation’s massive prison population can be done by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, decriminalizing low-level offenses, and reclassifying a number of felonies as misdemeanors.

The good news is that in 2018, former U.S. President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act. The Act shortened federal prison sentences, reduced the disparity in the recommended prison sentences between powder cocaine and crack, as well as gave judges more flexibility in sentencing. “President Trump’s support gave permission to other wavering Republicans to back criminal justice reform,” Grawert said. “There’s still a groundswell of bipartisan support, but time is of the essence.”

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