When many people think of being convicted of a crime, they typically think of one thing: jail. However, incarceration is only one of the numerous potential consequences that a conviction can have on your life. Even if you’re never convicted (or are only convicted of a minor crime), your involvement with the criminal justice system can be stressful. Furthermore, it changes how you’re treated by society and permanently alters the course of your life.
On the state and federal level, there are laws that impose criminal penalties for specific actions. These laws run the gamut, from traffic violations to violent crimes, and include restrictions on selling, manufacturing, importing, possessing, transporting, or using prohibited goods or materials. Criminal laws can apply to almost every action you take on a daily basis, and because the law presumes that every person has a constructive knowledge of what these laws are, ignorance is not a defense.
Criminal Laws and Criminals
Knowing the Law
Criminal laws change all the time. New laws can create new crimes, modify prior criminal statutes, or both. In efforts to enact or enforce these laws, federal and state regulatory agencies routinely adopt or amend regulations that impose criminal sanctions. Courts are constantly interpreting criminal laws and issuing rulings that change how those laws are enforced, and how they affect people.
As a result, no one has ever been able to determine exactly how many crimes exist in America at any time. According to the Library of Congress, organizations such as the United States Department of Justice and the American Bar Association have tried to answer this question, and have failed to arrive at any definitive number.
For example, an ABA study conducted in the late 1990s estimated that there were at least 3,000 federal criminal statutes, but the actual number was unknown. The study didn’t even begin to look at federal regulations (imposing criminal penalties) or state-level criminal laws and regulations.
You Might Be a Criminal
Even if you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong, the rights, liberties, and freedoms you enjoy are never secure. Average people have no way of knowing whether they’ve violated a state or federal law that imposes a criminal penalty, or whether they will be investigated for or charged with a crime they didn’t know existed in the first place. Whether you become a target of a criminal investigation and are charged with a crime is not under your control, and is solely up to the ability of law enforcement agents to gather evidence to be used against you and the discretion of a prosecutor to file charges accusing you of being a criminal.
To put it more succinctly, The Wall Street Journal reported that, according to one retired Louisiana State University law professor, every adult in the United States today can be indicted for at least one federal crime.
The Financial Costs of Crime
Anytime someone is charged with a crime, the question of how much it costs to hire a criminal defense attorney inevitably arises. People who are unable to afford a private defense attorney are legally entitled to be represented by a public defender, but only after prosecutors file criminal charges against, and only if they meet specific requirements. These requirements differ between jurisdictions but require applicants to be able to prove that their income or owned assets are below a specific amount, or that they are otherwise unable to afford a private attorney. For example, in Nashville, Tennessee, criminal defendants can be represented by a public defender if they have a yearly income that is less than 125% of the federal poverty level.
For those who have yet to be charged with a crime (or have been charged but do not qualify for a public defender), a private criminal defense attorney is the only option. Like all attorneys, private defense attorneys cost money – and they are not the only financial concern that someone charged with a crime can expect to face.
Criminal Defense Attorneys
How much a criminal defense attorney charges depends upon a variety of factors. In general, being charged with a more serious crime involves higher fees. Some attorneys charge a flat rate, such as a $500 fee for representing a defendant accused of a misdemeanor theft crime. Others charge hourly fees and require up-front retainers before they represent a client.
Criminal defense attorneys’ fees can range from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. Cases that last a long time or that involve complicated scenarios usually cost more than simple misdemeanors. Prices also fluctuate by geographic region, with higher prices common in more populated areas. Experienced attorneys, or attorneys with a higher profile or better reputation, typically charge more than younger, more inexperienced lawyers.
Say you’ve been charged with a DUI. A flat fee for a case in which your attorney represents you in court, negotiates a plea with the prosecutor, and guides you through the process can cost $800 to $2,500. These costs can be higher or lower depending on factors such as whether you have a criminal history, live in an area where legal fees are high, or hire the attorney to represent you both in the DUI case and the separate license suspension hearing. And while the majority of criminal cases end in plea bargains, costs can soar if your case ends up going to trial. DUI trial costs can range from the low thousands to $25,000 or more.
If the attorney works on an hourly rate, which can be range from $150 to more than $300, the attorney might require you to pay a lump sum – typically of several thousand dollars or more – as a retainer. As the attorney works on your case, you may be billed or funds may be taken from the retainer as payment.
If you qualify for a public defender, you might expect that your attorney’s fees are paid by the state. However, the cost of paying for a public defender differs widely depending on the jurisdiction and the crime. For example, a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law reports that someone charged with a felony in Virginia can be charged more than $1,200 for a public defender, while Florida has mandatory minimum public defender charges of $50 for misdemeanors and $100 for felonies.
Court costs for even basic traffic offenses can be significant, and that does not include potential fines or penalties imposed by the court. Fees can be imposed to cover court costs, entering or leaving jail, court-ordered supervision or probation, pay for clerks, record keepers, or the prosecutor’s office, and more. For example, according to Prison Legal News, a criminal defendant in Texas can easily face $600 in court-related fees for a simple case, or as much as $5,000 if the case results in a probation sentence.
Most states have “employment at will” laws, meaning employers can fire employees for any reason that is not otherwise protected by law. For example, an employer cannot fire you because of your race or religious affiliation, but can fire you because you don’t enjoy baseball. Furthermore, an employer can fire you if you have to go to court because you’ve been charged with a crime, if you miss work because you’ve been arrested, or even if you’re questioned about a crime and never charged.
That loss of income can make it harder to pay any fines or costs you might face, and may make it more difficult to comply with probation terms the court imposes, such as the requirement to have a job. And unfortunately, finding a new job after you’ve been convicted of a crime is often difficult.
Cascading Financial Problems
Even if you don’t lose your job, going to court, serving jail time, and having to pay fines can greatly affect your financial situation. The loss of funds can have a cascading effect, leading to more serious problems.
For example, people convicted of a DUI may have their licenses restricted, making getting to and from work much more difficult. If those people lose their jobs as a result of this loss of transportation, not only can paying back court fines and costs be more difficult, but the failure to pay on time (and potentially missing court appearances) can quickly lead to additional criminal charges and penalties.
The financial costs of being charged with or suspected of a crime are present regardless of the outcome of the case. But what happens if you are convicted? What kind of criminal penalties might you face? There are several issues you need to understand about the kinds of punishments you can face if you’re convicted of a crime.
The different types of penalties that can result from a criminal conviction are wide-ranging. Even people convicted of a nonviolent misdemeanor can face substantial penalties, while those convicted of felonies can face life-altering consequences.
For example, take someone convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol in Florida. A first-time DUI conviction can result in up to $1,000 in fines and up to nine months in jail, while those convicted of multiple DUI offenses can face five-year prison sentences and thousands of dollars in fines.
Seriousness of Crimes & Penalties
In general, felonies are crimes that involve a potential penalty of one year or more in prison, misdemeanors carry the potential of up to one year in jail, and infractions – such as speeding or traffic tickets – are punishable by fines or other civil penalties. The specific penalties that apply in any situation depend on multiple factors. For example, each state has its own laws for what punishments are possible with any specific crime. These laws state how long someone convicted of the crime can be forced to serve in prison and how large the fines can be.
For example, Texas places crimes into various categories, such as Class A, B, and C misdemeanors, with A being the most serious and C being the least. Class A misdemeanors, such as theft of between $500 and $1,500 in property, carry penalties of up to one year in jail and up to $4,000 in fines. Class C misdemeanors, such as theft of property worth less than $50, are punishable by fines of up to $500 and no jail time.
State criminal laws can also allow courts to impose harsher sentences if aggravating factors are present. Aggravating factors can include the defendant’s criminal history, whether the crime involved cruel circumstances or behavior, if the crime was committed in the presence of a child, and many others. On the other hand, if mitigating factors are present, such as the defendant playing only a small role in the crime, having no prior record, or expressing remorse or contrition, courts can often impose lighter sentences.
In addition to criminal convictions with incarceration or fines, there are additional penalties courts can impose:
- Probation. Probation is a way that courts punish convicted criminals by restricting their freedoms and liberties outside of a prison or jail environment. People on probation have to comply with specific limitations and orders imposed by the court, such as meeting with a probation officer on a regular basis, finding a job or maintaining employment, paying all court fees and costs on time, and participating in alcohol or drug rehabilitation programs. Additional fees for probation and probation monitoring, as well as for drug and alcohol programs, are also common, adding to the financial burden. Because probation sentences are given in lieu of (or in addition to) incarceration, people who fail to meet probation conditions can be sent back to jail to finish the remainder of their sentence.
- Restitution. Restitution is common in criminal cases involving property damage or theft, or any other instance where the victim loses money. When courts order defendants to pay restitution, they have to pay back victims for any money they might have lost as a result of the criminal activity. Restitution is money paid on top of any fines or court cost, and differs depending on the circumstances of each case.
- House Arrest. A person sentenced to house arrest must remain in his or her home for a specified period of time. Some trips may be allowed, such as for medical appointments or to visit a probation officer, but other travel is restricted. House arrest sentences may involve additional costs and fees, such as the payment of monitoring devices or services.
- Community Service. Community service is typically given for low-level crimes, as a punishment for those who don’t have significant criminal history, or as a condition of probation. Courts typically require criminal defendants to perform a specific number of hours working with a charitable, religious, or other approved organization. Community service sentences can require the defendant to pay additional fees or costs, and defendants who fail to meet the demands of the sentence can face additional penalties, or even be sent to jail.
- Restricted Privileges. Crimes that involve automobiles or the operation of motor vehicles, such as drunk driving, can also bring restricted driving penalties. However, driving is not considered a legal right, but a legal privilege. Therefore, people accused of these kinds of crimes can have their driving privileges suspended even if the criminal charges are later dropped or if they are acquitted.
Crime and Employment
Convicted criminals often face an uphill battle when it comes to landing a job. In fact, even those who’ve committed minor, nonviolent crimes might discover that finding a job, especially in certain fields of employment, is difficult.
Employers routinely ask applicants about their criminal histories, but can do so in different (and often confusing) ways. For example, some employers ask whether applicants have ever been convicted of a felony, while others ask if the applicant has been charged with a felony. Some ask about prior arrests or any involvement with the criminal justice system via written forms or applications, while others ask questions during the interview process.
According to the National Employment Law Project, some jurisdictions have adopted laws that restrict employers from using an applicant’s criminal background as a basis of refusing employment, or entirely prevent employers from asking about the criminal backgrounds of an applicant. However, these laws are not universal.
Criminal background checks are common in many fields of employment. Even if state laws don’t prohibit people who’ve committed certain types of crimes from obtaining employment, background checks that reveal a criminal history may be enough for private employers to refuse to hire applicants. These checks can be as simple as a basic records search of state or local criminal cases, to more extensive investigations involving interviews of an applicant’s family members, friends, past employers, coworkers, and anyone else who may have information.
Crime and Civil Liberties
Every state has enacted laws that limit a convicted criminal’s civil liberties. Some of these laws impose discretionary limits, while some limits are mandatory and some are automatic. Though particular restrictions differ significantly from state to state, and many are dependent upon the type of crime, they are significant no matter where you live and no matter the crime.
One State, More Than 900 Restricted Liberties
The State of Missouri illustrates how extensive restrictions on civil liberties can be. According to the American Bar Association’s National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction, there are 905 individually identified legal restrictions that apply to those in the state convicted of a crime.
Here is but a small number of them:
- Anyone convicted of a felony is prohibited from participating in any of the state’s youth service and conservation corps programs.
- Anyone convicted of a misdemeanor or felony is ineligible from serving as the personal representative or executor of a deceased person’s estate.
- Anyone convicted of a misdemeanor or felony cannot obtain a license as a motor vehicle dealer or seller unless they can show evidence they are a person of good moral character.
- Anyone convicted of any felony, or any crime related to elections, is ineligible to vote.
- Anyone convicted of any felony cannot own a firearm.
- Anyone convicted of any felony cannot receive a license to operate pyrotechnic displays.
- Anyone convicted of any felony cannot receive a private security license in the city of St. Louis.
- Landlords can deny rental applicants who were convicted of any offense involving a controlled substance.
- Public schools can expel any student convicted of a felony.
- The state gaming authority can permanently revoke a license to sell lottery tickets for anyone convicted of any crime.
- Adults convicted of any crime cannot have their juvenile records expunged.
- Those convicted of any crime can be refused a license to operate a daycare facility, to become a bondsman, or to practice law.
Beyond the state-level restrictions, convicted criminals also face federal restrictions. The ABA reports more than 1,100 identifiable federal restrictions or limits that apply to people convicted of various crimes. These include limits on the rights of someone convicted of a crime to receive disaster assistance, apply for student loans, apply for federal jobs, and receive certain federal business licenses or certifications.
Social Stigma and Psychological Impact
In addition to everything else, a criminal conviction can significantly affect how society views you, thinks of you, and treats you. While it’s difficult to put numbers or statistics on how being a convicted criminal can affect your standing among your peers, family, or the community at large, discrimination against criminals is common and widespread. Even in cases where people have been wrongfully accused or convicted of crimes, the social stigma surrounding their involvement with the criminal justice system can last a lifetime.
Beyond societal pressures, there can be significant psychological changes, such as those reported on by Craig Haney of University of California Santa Cruz, experienced by incarcerated prisoners, even if their periods of incarceration are brief. These changes in personality and psychology can last long after a convicted criminal has left the prison or jail environment, and can result in a higher likelihood of recidivism.
Common changes include the following:
- Hyper-Vigilance. Prisons are often dangerous places, and prisoners can quickly learn to be hyper-vigilant, adopting behaviors that can lead to self-imposed social isolation after their incarceration is over.
- Emotional Distancing. Prisoners commonly learn to hide their emotions to protect themselves from others who might see emotional displays as a sign of weakness. This can lead to an inability to create or maintain personal bonds with others once the prisoner leaves the prison environment.
- Guilt and Shame. For many convicted criminals, feelings of guilt and shame can be commonplace. Research by the Association for Psychological Science shows that prisoners who feel guilty about their crimes, and who seek to apologize or make amends, have a lower likelihood of committing additional crimes after their release. On the other hand, if prisoners react defensively to feelings of shame, they can turn those emotions outward, such as by blaming others for their problems. This type of reaction is associated with higher recidivism rates.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Prison can be so traumatic that those who leave it can experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbness, hyper-arousal, difficulty sleeping, unexpected outbursts of anger, and overwhelming feelings of anxiety or guilt are all common symptoms of PTSD, and can all impact a former prisoner’s ability to lead a productive life.
The old adage that “crime doesn’t pay” doesn’t quite encompass just how detrimental being charged with or convicted of a crime can be to you and your family. Whether you think you’ve been wrongly accused, believe you have nothing to hide, or are facing any criminal situation, talking to a lawyer with a background in criminal law is always a good idea. Doing everything you can to protect yourself before, during, and after you’ve entered the criminal justice system can be one of the best decisions you ever make.
Have you had any experience with the criminal justice system?