Fix the criminal justice system to open up our economy

Fix the criminal justice system to open up our economy
© Getty Images

third of African American males are outright excluded from many job opportunities before even getting an interview. Tens of millions of Americans, from all places and heritages, experience the same built-in disadvantage in our workforce. 

They all have a felony conviction. And even more Americans face the same discrimination from a misdemeanor or less.

According to a January 2018 report from Pew Charitable Trusts, the number of U.S. residents with a felony record increased significantly in every state between 1980 and 2010. The percentage of black males who have served time in prison was five times that of all Americans.

If we want a strong economy and stronger communities, this makes no sense.

ADVERTISEMENT

The burden of mass incarceration has a negative effect on state budgets and an even bigger negative effect on society, where people with felony records struggle to get out of low-wage jobs.

Breaking laws must have consequences, but our criminal justice system needs to provide a pathway to individual justice through the opportunity to earn a second chance in our economy.

Anything less is a failure. And failing means more people reentering the criminal justice system and less stability for their families and our communities.

Given the stakes, criminal justice reform is a topic looked at through this pragmatic lens rather than a partisan one.

Pennsylvania is leading the nation with a steady advancement of bipartisan criminal justice reforms focused on removing barriers that prevent advancement in the workforce: the nation’s first ‘Clean Slate’ law; creating a fair-chance hiring policy for state government; and eliminating driver’s license suspensions for non-driving infractions; all while seeing consecutive annual decreases in our prison population and a drop in crime.

Our Clean Slate legislation is really a jobs bill. With this new law, a person’s misdemeanor record will not shut them out the possibilities for a good job, career advancement, obtaining housing or getting into college.

ADVERTISEMENT

According to Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, since the law went into effect in late December 2018, more than 7,500 Pennsylvanians have requested help from attorneys offering their services free of charge via the My Clean Slate PA initiative; and 25,000 have visited mycleanslatepa.com to see how they might benefit from wiping their record clean.

In the land of the free, a criminal record should not mean a lifetime disqualification from opportunity — opportunity to build a better life after a mistake, for oneself and one’s family.

A criminal justice leader in our legislature, Rep. Jordan Harris, says, “We shouldn’t judge any person by only their worst day.”

He’s right.

Our government shouldn’t. And neither should our economy.

Tens of millions of Americans face a lifetime of economic stagnation due to a past conviction. This isn’t right. And it is not smart.

Government at all levels, and businesses and institutions across sectors must embrace common sense solutions to help the previously incarcerated through access to opportunity.

Smart criminal justice reforms will put more people to work and make our communities safer and more prosperous. It also will save taxpayers millions, if not billions, of dollars by reducing the cost of mass incarceration and the trail of social problems that follows it.

Criminal justice reform means making lives better by ensuring rehabilitation is available for those who have paid for their mistakes. It means providing job or skills training, so people can move back into their communities and succeed. It means access to services, including mental health and substance use treatment, so they can have a future that doesn’t involve returning to prison.

We have a lot of work to do.

We need to reform excessive sentencing guidelines, mandatory minimums, and probation and parole terms that trap people in the criminal justice system for too long. We need true bail reform — an end to our modern-day debtors’ prisons — and better access to legal counsel.

We need a nationwide clean slate program that speeds up record-sealing, and expansion of fair-chance hiring that removes the lifetime stigma of a past failure. 

State and local governments need to step up. The federal government must enact more smart criminal justice reforms, including more funding for specialty courts and diversion programs. Businesses, nonprofits and institutions must commit to giving qualified people with a past conviction a fair shot at jobs.

Since I became governor, Pennsylvania has reformed our criminal justice system so that it leads to better individual outcomes, lower taxpayer costs, less crime and fewer victims. We’ve taken the first steps to correct the decades-long errors that have left behind people with skills, talent, intellect and endless potential.

These efforts are working. But our commonwealth and the nation have a lot more to do. We must continue towards building the criminal justice system that’s fair and effective at rehabilitation. 

Tom Wolf is serving his second term as Governor of Pennsylvania. He will join Gov. Phil Bryant of Mississippi and others tomorrow at the National Governors Association Winter Meeting in Washington, D.C., to discuss the need for further criminal justice reform. Follow him on Twitter @GovernorTomWolf