In a fitting end to “Second Chance” month and National Reentry Week, the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate introduced a federal Clean Slate bill that could impact thousands of Americans nationwide. Criminal records affect approximately one in three Americans, harming their ability to reintegrate with society and obtain quality employment, housing and education.

The bill would accomplish two important objectives. First, it would create an avenue for petition-based relief for those with eligible federal criminal records. The bill would also establish automatic record sealing—also known as Clean Slate—for low-level drug offenses.

Currently, no federal record sealing or expungement mechanism exists, even for cases that resulted in just an arrest with no conviction. There is no official estimate of how many individuals this bill would affect. Still, some data provide a sense of how many people were arrested just for marijuana offenses, which would be eligible to be automatically cleared: generally between 4000 and 8000 annually, across the last decade.

For the thousands of affected individuals who have already completed their sentences, but who society continues to stigmatize, receiving a clean slate will provide powerful relief. A record can make it nearly impossible to get steady employment and housing, both necessary ingredients for a stable life. Individuals who struggle to get a job and a home can be at greater risk of reoffending.

By using technology to clear their record after a waiting period automatically, we will be able to give these folks a true second chance, while preserving public safety. The research is clear that after a number of years, those with a record are no more likely to commit a crime than anyone in the general population. Their record no longer has the same relevance, yet we continue to mark them with a scarlet letter for a lifetime.

The federal government can truly be a leader in providing second chances. While a few states have already passed clean slate policies with strong bipartisan support—Pennsylvania, Utah and Michigan—many are still considering adopting the policy.  Clean slate is an important addition to existing expungement laws since the current petition-based process is often too expensive and difficult to navigate. One study estimated that just 6.5 percent of eligible individuals receive an expungement. Current governmental processes are not working the way we intended, but automating the process could be the solution.

At the federal level, there is no existing petition-based policy, so a clean slate law will be a huge step up.

A related measure federal policymakers can take would increase funding for states who are interested in implementing their own clean slate policies. Many states wish to automate the expungement process, but the initial startup cost to switch from a manual petition-based process can be daunting. For example, Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) vetoed a clean slate bill last year because of revenue concerns in light of COVID-19, despite the fact that ultimately states can expect to save money in the long run. Since most criminal records are generated at the state level, this would significantly increase the reach of clean slate policies.

Clean slate is legislation that both parties can get behind, while counting as a real victory for the Biden administration that has been criticized for not doing enough on criminal justice. Isn’t it time the federal government helped our justice-involved neighbors get back on their feet?

Image credit: r.classen

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