During my last stint on jury duty, the judge asked us whether we—or our closest relatives—had ever been arrested or incarcerated. To my surprise, more than half of the group raised their hands. It was a telling reminder of the overwhelming number of Americans who have had some kind of run in with the law.

Oregon has, by national standards, a relatively low incarceration rate of 362 people per 100,000, according to data from the National Institute of Corrections. That means that nearly 153,000 Oregonians are currently are incarcerated. Most will eventually reintegrate into society—and will need to move on with their lives.

Tens of millions of Americans count among the formerly incarcerated. The Brennan Center for Justice raises some shocking statistics: “America now houses roughly the same number (of) people with criminal records as it does four-year college graduates. Nearly half of black males and almost 40 percent of white males are arrested by the age 23.”

Unfortunately, after background checks, people who have served a sentence have a difficult time getting jobs and qualifying for apartments. Occupational-licensing laws often limit people with convictions from gaining the state certifications necessary to pursue meaningful employment—leaving them at the mercy of the public-assistance system.

It is in everyone’s best interest to help former inmates rebuild their lives, but it is not always clear what to do. One simple policy offers much, without compromising public safety. A national bipartisan movement promotes “clean slate” policies, which help formerly incarcerated people clear their records so they face fewer hurdles. Oregon, however, is behind the curve.

According to the Clean Slate Initiative, “Under Oregon’s existing criminal record clearance law, approximately 45 percent of people are eligible for record clearance relief, yet research shows that only about 7 percent of Oregonians are actually successful in having their record clear.” The group blames a “burdensome petition-based expungement process” that makes it unnecessarily difficult and costly to clear past records.

Under current Oregon law, a person can apply to have an arrest or conviction set aside—provided the person has fully finished the sentence, the conviction qualifies (many violent crimes understandably are off limits), and has completed a court hearing. The Legislature now is considering Senate Bill 397, which would streamline the procedure for filing a court motion, eliminate fees and fingerprint requirements, and reduce waiting periods.

The legislation would accelerate the removal of non-conviction records, which is particularly important given that people shouldn’t be dogged by arrests, court dismissals and acquittals, none of which are actual convictions. The bill would also change the timeframe so that Oregonians need not wait 20 years before petitioning the courts to have their records expunged.

SB 397 includes plenty of public safeguards. For instance, the court would serve the prosecuting attorney with the record-clearing motion, and that attorney may file an objection. The bill directs the prosecutor to provide a copy of the petition to the victim, who could likewise object and ultimately mandate a record-clearing hearing. Most significantly, the law tilts the presumption toward expungement by requiring the court record to be set aside if the court receives no objections.

According to the proposed legislation, “Upon the entry of the order, the person for purposes of the law shall be deemed not to have been previously convicted, arrested, cited or charged and the court shall issue an order sealing all official records in the case.” That offers reasonable relief for those who have kept out of trouble after committing a nonviolent crime.

If Americans are serious about rehabilitating people, then it is imperative that state legislatures provide a realistic path back into mainstream life. Clean slate bills such as Oregon’s offer that path for the many Americans who have made a mistake, but still deserve a chance.

Image credit: corgarashu

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