In May 2019, after spending nearly 13 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, Hassan Bennett walked out of a Philadelphia courtroom a free man after successfully representing himself during a retrial. He was still wearing his prison uniform.

The legal feat, which followed years of Bennett studying his case and the law behind bars, caught the attention of nationwide news reports and won him supporters, mentors, and a job as a bail navigator and client advocate in Philadelphia’s public defender office.  

“I had a plan when I came home that I sent out to my family and friends. And due to their grace, I was steered in the right direction,” said Bennett, 40.

Despite his achievement, Bennett knows that his successful return home is far from the norm. “The lack of housing and inability to take care of yourself puts an additional stress on you that makes every move an emergency,” he said of those released from prison.

A new national survey of formerly incarcerated people echoes Bennett’s observations. Commissioned by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a multistate advocacy organization that works to improve public safety policy, “Voices of Redemption: A National Survey of People With Records,” documents the ways in which securing housing, adequate employment, and access to mental health services are much more challenging for this population than for the general public. It also found that over 90 percent of people with records say that they themselves have been victims of crime, quantifying what many know to be true about the cyclical nature of violence.

This cycle contributes to a racially disparate rate of arrests in Philadelphia, a city where homicides have claimed nearly 1,800 lives since 2020 — mostly through gun violence. Even when accounting for prior criminal record and illegal firearm charges, Black and Latinx Philadelphians who were convicted of aggravated assault or burglary were more likely to be incarcerated than white individuals convicted of the same crime, according to a June report from District Attorney Larry Krasner. African Americans, who made up 38 percent of the city’s population from 2015 to 2022, accounted for 69 percent of people arrested during those years.

The inequities in the prison system, and especially the troubles people face when reacclimating to society after their release, led The Alliance to conduct its “first-of-a-kind survey,” said its president, Lenore Anderson. The group wants lawmakers to understand the short- and long-term impacts of their policies on people with records. 

“The barriers to stability that people with old records face contribute to cycles that we should be seeking to stop,” she said. “When people with old records face near-insurmountable economic barriers to stability, that’s not good for public safety, it’s not good for the economy, it’s not good for communities.”

A nationally representative sample of 4,060 people were contacted for the survey. Of that group, the authors interviewed 554 people who had been arrested, convicted, or incarcerated. 

Among the key findings:

  • Twenty percent of respondents with records had an annual gross household income of less than $25,000, while 42 percent had household incomes of less than $50,000.
  • More than 44 percent of those with records cited difficulties obtaining housing.
  • Of those with felony convictions, 69 percent said they have had trouble paying for groceries.
  • Of those with felony convictions, 73 percent said they have had a problem attaining a job, maintaining employment, or making a living. 
  • More than 53 percent had been evicted or forced to move because they were unable to pay housing bills.
  • Of those with past convictions who cited mental health as a factor that led to their arrest,  48 percent said their experience being convicted or incarcerated made their mental health worse.
  • Of those with past convictions who cited financial struggles as a factor that led to their arrests, 48 percent said being jailed made their financial struggles worse.  
  • Of people with records, 91 percent said they have been victims of crime compared with 44 percent of people who do not have records.
  • Of those with past convictions, 76 percent said they have not removed or cleared any conviction from their record.

The survey’s findings were no surprise to Erik VanZant, who was arrested in Philadelphia at age 14 and spent 31 years in prison for murder before he was released on parole in 2019. He’s now the Pennsylvania state organizer for REFORM Alliance, a nonprofit that works to make probation and parole laws less punitive. 

The formerly incarcerated need services for housing, job training, mental health, dealing with trauma and the stigma of having been incarcerated, he said, but many are not getting what they need in communities with too few services to go around already.

“Being disenfranchised is one thing, but being disenfranchised with the stigma of being formerly incarcerated, you might as well still be locked up because you don’t have the skill set to survive out here,” VanZant said. “That’s a big key to survival. Having a skill set.”

Untreated trauma and previous victimization are major factors that VanZant, 49, says sent him and others to prison and linger as a source of pain. His trauma, he says, stemmed from being repeatedly molested by a neighbor in his Northeast Philadelphia community between ages 7 and 8.

At 14, after his abuser had divorced his wife and moved, VanZant broke into the house to commit a burglary but wound up stabbing the man’s ex-wife when she came home. He killed her in the basement where he had been molested, he recalled. 

“Most every woman that’s incarcerated for any crime went through some kind of trauma and abuse,” he said. “A lot of men also have been subjected to some kind of trauma. Then when you get out of jail you go right back into these systems. You never leave the trauma, and it’s never something that’s addressed in a healthy way.”

While many people support offering redemption to those formerly incarcerated, Anderson, The Alliance president, said lawmakers need to do more.

“This is still the most incarcerated nation in the world,” she said. “This is still the country that spends $300 billion on criminal justice when community-based violence prevention programs are struggling to stay open because they lack resources.”

Specifically, the survey’s authors recommend that lawmakers enact policies to seal the criminal records of those who’ve completed their sentences and maintained a crime-free period; lift some of the 40,000 legal restrictions that limit people’s eligibility to reintegrate, including prohibitions on employment, housing, and education; fund new safety solutions that prioritize prevention, treatment, and recovery services over spending on incarceration; and ensure that those with records can access crime victim services, given that most are also victims of crime.  

Correction: An earlier version of this story’s sub-headline misstated the number of Americans with criminal records.