For good or bad, shame is part of the criminal justice system. We post pictures of individuals accused of crimes in newspapers, we reduce the identity of incarcerated individuals to a number, and we mark them, much like the fictional Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter was marked, with their own kind of scarlet letter. We do this not by forcing individuals to sew letters onto their clothing, but by tagging them with criminal records that follow them for life.
Yet never-ending shame is not punitive or rehabilitative; it’s vindictive and holds people down. It creates second-class citizens by permanently excluding and devaluing individuals in our society regardless of their ability to change. In contrast, both society and individuals have much to benefit from offering individuals a clean slate.
More than 19 million people have a felony records, and more than 100 million criminal recordsexist in state criminal history repositories (individuals may have a criminal record in several states). These records routinely bar individuals from obtaining employment. Even when a person is as equally qualified as another candidate for a position, research shows that employers are less likely to offer those with felony records a callback or a job than those without such a record. People of color with criminal records face an even greater employment penalty than their white counterparts.
In other instances, entire industries seek to exclude the convicted through overbroad “ good moral character” clauses that are weaponized to deny the convicted occupational licenses in the guise of improving public health or safety. In reality, these restrictions can result in quite the opposite effect: As employment is a key factor in decreasing an individual’s chance of recidivism, restricting employment reduces public safety. Even when individuals do not return to crime, children and families of those with criminal records who are unemployed suffer from a lack of financial resources.
Convictions may also restrict an individual’s access to housing, education, and civic activities. Over 46,000 collateral consequences threaten to negatively affect people’s ability to have a productive life long after they are convicted. Even in situations where fiscal needs are met, the stigma associated with a criminal record remains.
In instances where individuals are able to pursue expungement (a procedure by which people can have their criminal record erased in the eyes of the law) or sealing (a process whereby criminal records are made unavailable, with a few exceptions, to the public) a complicated and lengthy legal process often awaits. Recently, however, the “Clean Slate” initiative has presented a solution to this dilemma: digital systems that can automatically clear records eligible for expungement or sealing.
Pennsylvania, meanwhile, has already passed a Clean Slate law, expanding both the number of offenses for which records may be sealed and creating an automated computer process up to the task of sealing eligible records. Arrest records that did not result in a conviction will be automatically sealed under the law, as will eligible misdemeanor offense records if an individual has not been convicted of a new offense for a decade after release and has paid all fines and fees associated with the original offense. Millions of Americans across the country stand to gain from lawmakers implementing similar initiatives.
Under clean slate laws such as Pennsylvania’s, convicts have the opportunity to take off the scarlet “C” and rejoin their communities as equal, contributing members of society. The consequences of committing a crime would be more proportional to the act committed. Abstaining from crime would be rewarded by grace and forgiveness.
In some cases, public acknowledgment of criminal involvement and restrictions on employment are warranted. A pedophile should not be allowed to work in a day care, nor perhaps would it be wise to let someone convicted of embezzlement manage a company’s finances. Clean slate laws can allow for these exceptions.
But in most cases, we have much to gain from offering individuals a clean slate. Employers gain access to a new population of potential employees. Customers benefit from increased intra-industry competition and access to services. The public benefits from a safer society. Convicted individuals and their families are allowed an opportunity to pursue fiscal and psychological prosperity.
Perhaps just as significantly, individuals with criminal records will be allowed to regain their dignity — something that practitioners note is vital to their recovery from underlying risk factors for criminal activity, such as mental illness and addiction. Giving individuals an opportunity to earn back their place in society may therefore be the key to both abstinence from crime and long-term recovery, to the enrichment of us all.