The nation should model Utah’s ‘Clean Slate’ on criminal records

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On Thursday, Utah will begin sealing thousands of old criminal and arrest records. The Clean Slate Law was passed in 2019.  

The unanimous support of the Beehive State’s overwhelmingly Republican legislature demonstrates the bipartisan appeal of it as common sense and fiscally sound policy. It simultaneously delivers justice, prosperity and public safety. Other states should follow its example.   

Clean Slate laws automatically seal the records of people acquitted or convicted of relatively minor crimes, so long as they remain crime-free for a certain period.  This is not a “soft-on-crime” approach, but rather a recognition that people should not bear lifelong burdens for minor past mistakes. As things stand, roughly one in three U.S. adults face substantial and often unnecessary barriers to employment, housing and education – often for decades-old offenses.  

As we look to recover from the pandemic, the idea of needlessly preventing so many people from contributing should be repugnant to us all.  

While not every individual with a record is “job-ready,” we can no longer overlook the many millions that are.  The current labor shortage will not go away.  As the baby boom generation retires, decades of falling birth rates have resulted in a shortage of new entrants to the workforce. There are roughly 11 million job openings in the United States but only 6 million job seekers.  This is more than a dry statistic — consumers are already feeling the pinch through reduced services, higher prices and shortages of goods.  For employers, this labor shortage can be an existential threat.  The shortage is squeezing businesses with higher wage costs but not providing enough workers to grow their business.  Unless we find ways to get more workers into jobs — like Clean Slate — our economic recovery will end.  

Contrary to some assertions, Clean Slate laws don’t undermine public safety. Law enforcement still retains the ability to see these sealed records as needed. In fact, automatic sealing makes our communities safer.  The unemployment rate for the formerly incarcerated is 27 percent, and the rate of joblessness in the first year after exiting prison is well over 50 percent.  With employment being foundational to rehabilitation, the high rate of joblessness directly drives up reoffending rates and undermines public safety.  By allowing millions of Americans to provide for themselves and their families, we can reduce crime.   

It’s a technological solution for closing the justice gap. While there are often existing, court petition-based processes for getting a person’s record sealed, they are costly and complicated. As a result, the actual relief provided has been incredibly limited; for example, fewer than 6.5 percent of those eligible in Michigan applied within five years and an assessment of a 2017 New York expungement law showed that fewer than 1 percent had taken advantage of the law. But justice shouldn’t be dependent on a person’s income. By automating the process, we can help people get the second chances they are already entitled to.   

Beyond the individuals themselves, we should consider those around them. Nearly half of all children in America have a parent with a record, which we know has a negative impact on family outcomes and well-being. These children are entirely blameless and yet are forced to see their life chances suffer — entirely without reason. By automatically sealing those records, we can give them the opportunities they deserve.   

Such laws will help ensure that our population’s talents are fully utilized and that they benefit from the prosperity that should accompany those talents.  In Michigan, people who had their records sealed saw their earnings increase by over 20 percent within a year. These gains reflect improved access to jobs, as well as improved economic mobility for those who have them. For employers, automatic record sealing removes the stigma and potential liability of hiring someone with a record — as they have been “pre-vetted” by the government.   

People are more than their mistakes. As we look to rebuild a more just country, we should look to give people the second chances they deserve. It’s not just the moral thing to do. Through Clean Slate, we can revitalize our workforce, boost our economy, support American families and make our communities safer. States across the country are waking up to its benefits.  

In November, Delaware became the fifth state to pass such legislation, and Colorado is currently looking to do the same. We should follow their lead.   

Jeff Korzenik is the chief investment strategist of Fifth Third Bank, an elected member of the Council on Criminal Justice, and the author of “Untapped Talent: How Second Chance Hiring Works for Your Business and the Community” (HarperCollins Leadership, April 2021). The views expressed herein are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Fifth Third Bank.

Tags Clean Slate Criminal justice reform in the United States Employment discrimination against persons with criminal records expungement Justice

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