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There is no just future without a Clean Slate

There is no just future without a Clean Slate
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Enough has been enough for centuries now.

We are witnessing a reckoning in the streets and in statehouses across the country because of the violent, expansive and devastating effects of the criminal legal system on Black communities. Protests across the country have called for an end to police violence and systemic racism, prompting an overall reimagination of what our policies and institutions can do to create healthy, safe and just communities instead. 

How can we turn this call for change into action? As we advocate for solutions that shift resources away from over-policing and mass incarceration, we must also repair past harms as a way to build a better future together. Policymakers and advocates can do this through the enactment of Clean Slate policies that bring a measure of justice and equity to millions of Americans.

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There are countless people whose lives have already been upended because of the institutionalized racism inherent in the criminal legal system. Decades of federal, state and local policies and practices, like the War on Drugs, disproportionately targeting Black people and communities of color have made it so that one in three Americans is burdened with a criminal record. For 70 to 100 million people, these records create lifetime barriers to obtaining living wage jobs, stable housing, education and much more. Leaving them behind is not just.

That’s why governments should enact and implement Clean Slate policies, which clear all eligible criminal records without requiring that the person navigate a process where the cards are again stacked against them. It is a tangible way to begin repairing past wrongs while providing a measure of hope to those whose lives have been derailed because of the expansive reach of the criminal legal system.

Most people do not realize that millions of criminal records are already eligible to be expunged under current law. But in all states, the existing processes are complicated, time-consuming, slow-moving and expensive. In fact, one study shows that the existing processes leave nearly 95 percent of eligible people behind. These barriers should not be our reality. 

At Code for America, where I lead the criminal justice program, we work to ensure that the government delivers services to everyone with dignity and respect. Through our landmark Clear My Record program, we’ve demonstrated what’s possible in delivering record clearance services, automatically and at scale. Now, building on this and other record clearance efforts, we should expand these initiatives across the nation.

In Pennsylvania, for example, the state’s new Clean Slate policy sealed 2.8 million cases in March, despite the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, stay-at-home orders and court closures. 

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Other states are on the verge of implementing similar policies — we’re working directly with their governments to design and implement Clean Slate processes that are impactful, efficient and achievable. Clean Slate policies are more important now than ever, as court closures and backlogs mean that it will be even more difficult to participate in economic recovery. A criminal conviction should not be a lifetime sentence to poverty.

An old criminal record is damaging for people — it creates a ripple effect on families and communities. The barriers to opportunity because of an old criminal record means that parents cannot provide for their children, that schools remain underfunded — and that people cannot go back to school, find stable housing, obtain good jobs or get professional licenses. These barriers lead to increased rates of poverty and homelessness, coupled with a chronic lack of access to the social safety net and other programs. Police are often tasked with “solving” for our disinvestment in public schools, public health and safety net programs — leading to even more over-policing.

Lawmakers are confronted with the reality that there are over 30 million people out of work and predictions that unemployment levels could exceed those of the Great Depression. Just like the criminal legal system, economic recessions disproportionately harm Black and Brown communities, and everlasting criminal records play a substantial role. Nationally, there are over 40,000 laws that allow employers and landlords to discriminate against someone with a criminal record. It should be no surprise then that people with criminal records have been experiencing crisis-level unemployment for decades. On average, people achieve a 25 percent earnings increase within one year of clearing their record. 

As we reckon with the racial and economic injustices woven into our American story — and heal from the public health and economic crises of 2020— we must design a future that ensures governments can serve all of us. States should follow the lead and momentum of Pennsylvania, Utah, North Carolina, California and others to pass Clean Slate policies.

Our country needs a path to recovery that is equitable, inclusive — and just.

Evonne Silva is the senior program director of Criminal Justice at Code for America, where she leads a team that develops civic technology aimed at transforming the criminal justice system.