State momentum in criminal record sealing fuels federal clean slate bill

State momentum in criminal record sealing fuels federal clean slate bill
© Greg Nash

Lawmakers in Congress are soon set to hear a bipartisan proposal that has the potential to help tens of thousands of Americans get a second chance by creating the first ever federal process for sealing criminal records. The impact of this would be profound when you consider the fact that one in three Americans across the country have some type of criminal record.

That translates to between 70 million and 100 million people confronting barriers to employment, education, and housing even after completing a sentence. For millions of Americans, a criminal record is a life sentence to poverty. In this digital era, with nine in 10 employers, four in five landlords, and three in five colleges using background checks, any record no matter how old or minor can put the basics of life permanently out of reach.

Nearly half of children now have at least one parent with a criminal record, and the barriers associated with that record, from difficulty finding a job to trouble securing stable housing, can result in lasting family economic instability and severely limit the life chances of children, also potentially hampering cognitive development and educational achievement.

ADVERTISEMENT

But we can end this generational harm. It starts with bringing record clearing to the federal level. Record clearing has been linked to lower recidivism rates, which is logical given that individuals who can secure employment are less likely to get in trouble with the law. It also helps our economy, as individuals who have turned their lives around can finally secure employment. The Center for Economic and Policy Research has estimated that the United States loses about $78 billion to $87 billion in gross domestic product every year due to shutting people with criminal records out of gaining employment in the national labor market.

We can all agree that second chances for the betterment of our economy, the safety of our communities, and the prosperity of our families. That is why we are seeing a bipartisan movement of states taking steps to expand who is eligible to clear their records and to make the process automatic, streamlining a burdensome workload for the courts and making it easier for people to get relief, particularly those who cannot afford legal help. If we rethink the current petition process, which prevents 90 percent of eligible individuals from ever obtaining relief, and offer a technological solution to make relief automatic, we can change millions of lives.

Lawmakers, communities, business leaders, law enforcement, and even the Philadelphia Eagles came together to pass the first in the nation Clean Slate Act in 2019, with support from 81 percent of Pennsylvanians. Out in Utah, similar legislation was passed unanimously with the support of the Statewide Association of Prosecutors, the Department of Public Safety, the Statewide Police Chiefs, the Law Enforcement Legislative Committee, the Utah State Bar, and the Salt Lake Business Chamber. Now states as diverse as Michigan, Connecticut, and Washington are also advancing some clean slate automated record clearing legislation of their own.

Inspired by this bipartisan momentum across states, Congress is again learning from them when it comes to criminal justice reform. Introduced in the House, the Clean Slate Act would for the first time allow those with certain federal convictions to have their records sealed. This is a critical action, considering record clearing does not currently exist for federal records, even where charges are dismissed. It would also automatically seal certain low level drug offenses after someone has completed the terms of his or her sentence and remained crime free, creating a federal process for such automated record sealing to build on going forward.

What are the results of enacting clean slate policies? People with criminal records will finally be able to earn a decent living, obtain stable housing, and access education and training. Moreover, taxpayer dollars will be saved by reducing a burdensome court workload and from breaking the cycle of reincarceration that can result when reentry into society fails. Finally, communities will benefit and will see public safety enhanced.

Clean slate is a realistic and compassionate policy that has now received widespread bipartisan support, as 71 percent of registered voters across party and demographic lines want federal record clearing. Individually, our organizations represent conservative and progressive causes and policies. Together, the the R Street Institute and the Center for American Progress are excited to join with a number of other organizations, which as many know agree on little else, to support this bill in Congress and similar efforts across the country. By making clean slate policies a reality at both the state and federal levels, we can move our country toward a future where a criminal record is no longer a life sentence to poverty.

Nila Bala, associate director for criminal justice policy at the R Street Institute, is a former assistant public defender in Baltimore. Rebecca Vallas, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is a former attorney representing those with criminal records and their families.