Everyone makes mistakes. It’s an unavoidable part of life. Most people can move on and learn from their indiscretions. But imagine being unable to get a job, rent an apartment or get an education—all because of an incident decades in your past.

That’s the situation New Orleans resident “Alyssa” recently found herself in. Hoping to improve her career prospects, Alyssa spent years in nursing school. After graduating with honors, she was unable to obtain a nurse practitioner license because of a single offense on her record. Even though Louisiana faces a desperate nursing shortage with more than 6,000 positions open statewide, Alyssa cannot put her education to use and make a valuable contribution to her community.

Alyssa is not alone. One-third of American adults have a criminal record, and many face similar barriers. A minor conviction, such as a DUI or nonviolent drug offense, can have lifelong ramifications that continue long after a sentence has been served. Ninety percent of employers, 80 percent of landlords and 60 percent of colleges use background checks to screen applicants. State hiring laws restrict people with convictions from hundreds of occupations. The stigma of a criminal record, even a mere arrest, can permanently damage a person’s potential for meaningful employment, safe housing and educational opportunities.

A national movement called “Clean Slate” is offering a second chance to those who have already paid their debt to society. An ideologically diverse set of eight states, including Oklahoma and Utah, have all made record sealing automatic under certain circumstances. Under these laws, people who stay out of trouble for a certain period qualify to have their criminal records automatically sealed or expunged. For example, Connecticut’s law requires misdemeanor records to be sealed after seven years without a conviction and eligible felonies sealed after 10. Government officials are still able to access old records if a person does subsequently commit a crime or in special cases such as firearm applications. At the federal level, a bipartisan group of lawmakers have introduced the Clean Slate Act (H.R. 2864 and S. 1380), which would automatically seal records for low-level, nonviolent offenses.

These lawmakers have taken the lead in creating a pathway to rehabilitation for the 2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails, almost all of whom will eventually be released. However, the permanent burden of a criminal record prevents successful reintegration into society for many, incentivizing further criminal activity. This cycle makes us all less safe.

Research studies demonstrate that one of the best ways to reduce recidivism is to help former prisoners secure meaningful employment. Yet the average unemployment rate for this group is over 27 percent—higher than the national rate during the Great Depression. Nearly half of U.S. children have at least one parent with a criminal record, which negatively affects family stability. In many states, a felony can be a barrier to basic government assistance, such as food stamps, extending the collateral damage across generations. Children do not deserve a lifetime of economic hardship due to the mistakes of their parents.

The Constitution guarantees equal protection under the law. However, the current system advantages those with the money necessary to undertake a complicated and arduous legal process. On average, only 6.5 percent of those eligible ever have their case sealed under the existing petition-based system. That’s because the process usually requires hiring an attorney—an expense beyond the reach of someone struggling with employment due to a conviction. Automatic record-sealing makes the entire process more efficient, easing the administrative burden on court clerks, prosecutors and judges as well. Thus, Clean Slate has the potential to mitigate costs for both court users and taxpayers alike.

Verizon, JPMorgan Chase and the Business Council of New York have all endorsed Clean Slate because it is good for business. With labor shortages at historic highs, companies are finding it hard to retain motivated employees. Clean Slate opens the door to a diverse and underutilized talent pool currently excluded from the labor market, which costs the U.S. economy an estimated $87 billion annually in lost gross domestic product. Former offenders are less likely to quit than non-offenders, saving money in turnover costs. In addition, recent Clean Slate proposals provide robust protections for employers to ensure that business owners are not held liable for hiring someone with a sealed record.

Ultimately, facilitating reentry after prison provides an incentive to stay on the right side of the law. This is why top prosecutors and law enforcement officials support Clean Slate. They know public safety suffers when people are barred from obtaining the basic building blocks of a stable life. It is time to restore human dignity to the millions of U.S. citizens living under a life sentence of economic marginalization. It is time to give people an opportunity for a Clean Slate. 

Image credit: AungMyo

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