Trump should reform criminal justice system to foster economic growth

President-elect Trump has expressed a commitment to fostering economic growth and preserving American jobs. In that pursuit, he would be well advised to work towards reforming the criminal justice system. If he embraced a bankruptcy-like program to restore clean criminal records to the millions of Americans who have not been in trouble for many years, he could generate hundreds of thousands jobs – many more than were saved by his intervention and promises to Carrier and United Technologies.

One of the first measures of any economy is employment and job growth. Surprisingly (and unbeknownst to most politicians), our criminal justice system, and its focus on punishment instead of prevention, is one of the biggest drags on our economy because its long-term impact on employment.


Once you have a criminal conviction, your ability to get a job is slashed for the rest of your life. If you can get a job, it is likely be “off-the-books.” One Department of Justice study estimated that the average wage loss is 50 percent.


The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported a decade ago that about 68 million Americans have a criminal record. Many of these records are not convictions, but some estimate that about one-third of American working age adults have a criminal conviction.

More than two-thirds of the U.S. gross domestic product is based on the activity of consumers. Cumulatively, the "under-earning" by perhaps one-third of American consumers means lost purchases of everything that every American company makes and sells. Imagine how many Americans could get a mortgage and buy a home if millions of Americans no longer had a criminal record (and imagine how many new Carrier furnaces and air conditioners would be sold and installed).

We have a prison population of 1.8 million (that excludes the jail and juvenile detention populations). In 1970, that number was about .25 million. We know that none of the men and women in prison bought a Ford or Chevrolet last year. We also know that most of those in prison are not there for violent offenses. If they were home – yes, with their liberty restricted, and under supervision – they could work, and many of them would need and could buy a car.

Those states that have begun to reduce their prison populations are seeing that their crimes rates are continuing to drop, often faster than states that still are the most incarcerating.

With smarter criminal justice policies, America’s economy might see a half million more cars sold per year. America could see perhaps a half million new homes sold per year. With smarter criminal justice policies, the S&P 500 index might grow several more points per year.

Of course, we should also eliminate crimes that no longer make sense, such as prohibiting adult marijuana use (and marijuana growing and selling for adult use). Nationwide, this would eliminate about 600,000 criminal records each year.

Imagine what the Social Security trust fund would like if millions more American men and women were working, instead of in prison or unemployed or underemployed.

Trump should direct his economic team to fully calculate the large-scale economic benefits of smart on crime justice reform. 

Trump is proud of his mastery of bankruptcy laws. A criminal record clean slate law is like a bankruptcy. Instead of wiping your financial debts away, such a law would wipe away your criminal record after five or seven years of verifiable good conduct. Bankruptcy, which is in the Constitution, is a useful model for rebuilding the records of formerly convicted persons to re-enter the economy by the millions and help build economic growth for all Americans.

Eric E. Sterling, executive director of the non-profit Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Silver Spring, Maryland, was counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, principally responsible for anti-crime and anti-drug legislation, from 1979 to 1989.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.