North Carolina made national news last year when the legislature unanimously approved the Second Chance Act, which expanded access to criminal record expungements.

Now, roughly a year later, lawmakers have the opportunity to supplement this act with a more robust reform: Clean Slate. This is a policy model that automatically clears certain criminal records— nonviolent, nonsexual misdemeanors and felonies—for individuals remaining crime-free for a specified timeframe. If implemented properly, this reform would help more people get a fresh start and boost North Carolina’s floundering economy.

Blemished background records can serve as a life sentence to those who have been arrested, making it more difficult for them to pass mandatory background checks for employment and education. After all, around 90 percent of employers and 72 percent of colleges require background checks.

This can leave many underemployed or unemployed, exacerbating an already tenuous economic recovery. Moreover, roughly one quarter of North Carolinians have a criminal record—meaning past mistakes currently burden millions.

Understanding the impact of criminal records, lawmakers crafted the Second Chance Act, giving hope and expanding access to expungement, which makes it easier to find gainful employment and earn better pay. In fact, after record expungement, individuals earn, on average, about 25 percent more than pre-expunction. Additionally, those with expunged records are about as likely to commit another crime as the rest of the public.

Relatively narrow in scope, North Carolina’s Second Chance Act extended only to those with nonviolent charges that were seven or more years old, and the record clearance process was only automated for a smaller subset of cases.

While a positive step, the act has obvious shortcomings: it did not apply to many criminal records, and the process was not automatic for most cases. Expungement is therefore inaccessible to many North Carolinians, especially considering the process’ highly technical nature and considerable expense.

To rectify these issues, the legislature has begun exploring the Clean Slate model, and Sen. Danny Britt (R-13) introduced one such bill. While well-intentioned and laudable in potential improvements, the bill contains some concerning provisions.

As it stands, the measure allows automatic record clearance for more people, provided they have remained crime-free for long periods of time. For instance, individuals with two nonviolent, nonsexual felonies would have to wait 20 years to qualify for expunction. So long a period could prove counter-productive to the goal of the Clean Slate model, which is to ensure that criminal records do not hamstring rehabilitated individuals for life.

This 20-year waiting period appears arbitrary and unnecessary. Research suggests that if individuals remain crime-free for only a handful of years, then their recidivism rate is no higher than that of the general population.

Forcing rehabilitated individuals to carry their record as a scarlet letter for decades is harmful, serving only as a long-term secondary penalty. Rather than hampering individuals for unreasonably long periods of time, North Carolina ought to reward good behavior and place a premium on redemption. Getting Clean Slate right will help.

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