Skip to main content

Believing in a Positive Future Can Help Resist Stigma

IPR sociologist Simone Ispa-Landa finds that anger and optimism for the future helps those with a criminal record resist stigma.

Get all our news

Subscribe to newsletter

They did not accept a view of themselves as defective or damaged, and their optimism became this vehicle for them to resist that narrative about themselves. ”

Simone Ispa-Landa
Associate Professor of Human Development and Social Policy and IPR Fellow

Prison Cell

IPR sociologist Simone Ispa-Landa found that anger and optimism for the future helped those with a criminal record resist stigma. 

An estimated 77 million Americans, or as many as 1 in 3, have a criminal record, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This can lead to stigma and discrimination, making it challenging for those with a criminal record to find employment, get housing, or apply for student financial aid.  

In a recent qualitative study, IPR sociologist Simone Ispa-Landa examined the role emotions play in allowing people with a criminal record to resist stigma. Between 2012 and 2013, she interviewed 17 people with felony convictions who had applied for expungement in Illinois. The project was part of a larger study examining criminal record stigma. 

They came to a Chicago legal aid clinic hoping to have their criminal records expunged—the process of having their criminal record cleared—but were found ineligible.

During interviews, Ispa-Landa discovered that these individuals were angry with the criminal justice system for not giving them a second chance. They also believed the stigma of a criminal record was unfair.

“In popular discourse, as well as in some academic studies, anger is sort of a negative liability or health problem,” Ispa-Landa explained. “In my study, anger was a really healthy, positive thing because it was a way of resisting negative labeling.”

Despite not being able to clear their records, all of those interviewed, except for one, remained optimistic about their future.

“They did not accept a view of themselves as defective or damaged, and their optimism became this vehicle for them to resist that narrative about themselves,” she said.

Because criminal records are easily accessible public information, they can signal a lack of potential to those with a criminal record, Ispa-Landa argued. She called it a “legal form of discrimination.”

Rather than succumb to these negative self-views, the study participants used anger and optimism to combat the stigma they experienced. This helped them interpret being denied expungement as a result of legal bureaucracy, rather than as a statement of their personal worth. 

“From my research in the criminal records I came away with a very strong feeling that in many cases, the criminal record itself is what’s holding people back,” Ispa-Landa pointed out. “It’s not their criminal past, it’s the actual legal artifact that’s holding them back.”

As an extension of this work, Ispa-Landa is looking at school discipline. She plans to investigate how disciplinary action in schools might label students in the same way the criminal justice system does.

Moving forward, she suggests that researchers should consider focusing on the benefits of emotions, such as anger, as a reaction to stigma and injustice, especially for highly marginalized populations.

“I also think it’s interesting to think about who is allowed to express anger and when is it seen as legitimate, because of course we know that women and particularly men of color are more heavily sanctioned for anger displays,” Ispa-Landa said.

Simone Ispa-Landa is an associate professor of human development and social policy and an IPR fellow.

Photo credit: Pexels Stock Photo

Published: March 17, 2020.