From Chan Zuckerberg Initiative:

Nila Bala
R Street Institute
Associate Director, Criminal Justice & Civil Liberties; Senior Fellow
Connecticut and Michigan Clean Slate Efforts

Nila Bala is the Associate Director of Criminal Justice & Civil Liberties and Senior Fellow at R Street Institute, a public policy research organization dedicated to forming transpartisan coalitions across the political spectrum. Inspired by her clients and the power of second chances, she now oversees reentry, Clean Slate and expungement policies. Nila got her start as a public defender in Santa Clara County and also served as an attorney in Baltimore City, Maryland, at the Wabash Courthouse. She is now supporting Clean Slate efforts in Connecticut and Michigan by coordinating leaders on the political right and educating lawmakers on the state level.

As a public defender, you’ve seen firsthand the effects of having a criminal record. How does a criminal conviction harm individuals after they’ve completed their sentences?

The harms often extend far beyond their sentences. The most obvious way that it affects people is employment. It’s very routine that employers do background checks, and if they see your name come up, they likely won’t look any further. It can really hurt people because they don’t get a chance to prove themselves. We also know from research that these individuals are often the most loyal and hardworking employees.

Besides jobs, it affects their families and children if they’re unemployed or underemployed. And we know that children of incarcerated individuals are far more likely to get caught up in the justice system. It affects our communities. A lot of housing is restricted and their family’s housing might be jeopardized. It affects education. Many individuals need monetary support — and we know that once these folks get their degrees their job prospects increase — but they can’t get their foot in the door because they’re not eligible for financial aid.

One in 3 adults in America has a criminal record. What does it mean for them to be eligible to clear their records?

Eligibility is part of it, and that’s huge. When you tell someone that they don’t have to have this come up every time they apply for an opportunity, there’s such a sense of relief that they can move on. For some of these individuals, it’s been decades since they made that mistake.

The other part is access to the expungement. The people most impacted by our justice system often lack access, right? So in most jurisdictions, at least in the research I’ve done, there are far more people who are eligible for relief but just don’t know it. Or maybe they know it but they haven’t been able to do the paperwork or get the money to pay for it.

Clearing records simply isn’t enough though. From a cost-savings perspective, why is it so important to automate this process?

Criminal justice is expensive. Prosecution is expensive. Jail and prison are expensive. Probation and parole are expensive. The cheapest thing is to keep people out of the system and back in society as thriving members of our community.

Automation takes the burden off individuals. Once their records are automatically cleared, they have more opportunities to get jobs and make higher wages. Now they have incomes, can support their families and afford housing and other services that the state was formerly helping to subsidize or pay. Then, they become consumers in our economy. So our economy benefits because they have more money to spend. And then there are also public safety benefits. Employment reduces recidivism. Once they have good-paying jobs, our communities are less likely to experience more crime.

Automation is also hugely beneficial because to previously receive expungement, individuals would have to file a bunch of paperwork, the court clerks would have to review and the district attorney or prosecutor would have to look at eligibility and make a recommendation to the judge. If you eliminate that docket, you eliminate all those people’s time and expenses. If we make this automatic, the justice system saves a ton of money.

Why do persons with a criminal conviction deserve a second chance?

A second chance means they can be more than that single story and more than the worst thing that’s ever happened to them. We all make mistakes. If you think back to the worst thing you’ve ever done, would you want to be defined by that? That’s what a criminal conviction can do for a person. It defines them in our system today. It means that every employer, every landlord, every educational institution is looking at that first and foremost instead of all the positive attributes an individual brings to the table.

After a few years, a person with a criminal record is no more likely than anyone else in the public without a record to commit another crime. Why are we having them shoulder this burden for their whole life? Why are we sentencing them to poverty, stigma and humiliation forever? It may seem like it isn’t that big of a deal, but for the person affected, a second chance can change their life.