Through his research at the Brennan Center for Justice, Ames Grawert advocates for a fresh start for Americans with criminal records. 

Photo by Michael Nagin
Photo by Michael Nagin

As a young associate at the international law firm Mayer Brown, Ames Grawert ’06 helped a Chicago man convicted of murder challenge his conviction on the grounds of ineffective counsel. He then switched sides by joining the district attorney’s office in Nassau County, New York, where he fought to uphold criminal convictions in appellate litigation.

“As an appellate lawyer, I saw how much the deck is stacked against defendants,” Grawert said. “You have to mount a major effort to even get the court to look at the case.” In 2016, he became a senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, where he conducts research on incarceration disparities and advocates for criminal justice reform.     

 Grawert’s first major project at the Brennan Center was to research the financial consequences of a criminal conviction. He discovered that 1 in every 5 Americans, about 70 million people, has a criminal record of some kind. Even after they’ve served their sentence, these people suffer diminished earning potential going forward — for example, people with misdemeanor convictions make 16% less in annual earnings. “People think that misdemeanors are no big deal, but even being convicted of a minor crime affects your earnings for the rest of your life,” Grawert said. People with a criminal record have trouble finding jobs, housing and basic services. Since people of color make up a disproportionate share of the 2.3 million people in American jails, the financial burden of imprisonment falls disproportionately on Black people and Latinos.

“I’ve heard from people who got out of prison, earned an undergraduate degree from NYU, got a graduate degree in social work and still couldn’t get a job because of their criminal record. Stories like that are really what animate the issue for me. We don’t have space in our society for people who make a mistake.”  

To fix those economic and racial disparities of criminal conviction, the Brennan Center project made a number of recommendations to policymakers. “Clean slate” laws, which automatically seal the criminal records of people who have completed their sentences, can help prevent discrimination against formerly incarcerated individuals. Six states have already adopted such laws, including Pennsylvania, Utah and Michigan. Legalizing marijuana, as 16 states have done, would cut down on the number of low-level arrests and convictions. Eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, reclassifying some felonies as misdemeanors and decriminalizing other low-level offenses would reduce America’s
massive prison population. 

The good news is that criminal justice reform is one of the few issues on which many Democrats and Republicans see eye to eye. In 2018, President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act, which shortened federal prison sentences, gave judges more flexibility in sentencing and reduced the disparity in recommended prison sentences between crack and powder cocaine. “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.”