North Carolina lawmakers returned to Raleigh on Monday for a last-ditch attempt to pass meaningful legislation and work out a budget compromise with Gov. Roy Cooper. When deciding on what measures to prioritize, lawmakers should put the Second Chance Act on the top of their list.

After all, the aims of the bill are simple and backed by common sense. First, the bill would increase the efficiency of expunction (also called expungement) — the process by which an individual’s arrest, charge or conviction can be removed from public record. Second, it aims to expand the pool of people eligible for expunction in a way that promotes second chances while preserving public safety.

A criminal conviction restricts a person’s ability to access employment, housing and education. When criminal records are concentrated among certain individuals, both the local labor market and the American economy suffers. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in 2014 alone, the United States lost an estimated $78 to $87 billion in annual gross domestic product because many people who had been incarcerated or had a felony conviction couldn’t participate in the economy.

Expunction can mitigate this harm by removing criminal records that no longer help ensure public safety. Indeed, a recent study found that within two years, people who obtained an expunction saw their incomes rise by 25 percent above what would be expected.

Unfortunately, many eligible for expunction are not aware of it. They also have to fill out cumbersome paperwork and may have to pay a fee. By streamlining and, in the future, automating the process for people whose charges have been dismissed or resulted in a finding of “not guilty,” the Second Chance Act reduces these barriers. These measures would ensure that more people benefit from expunction policies and, just as importantly, that time and financial means don’t preclude those in poverty from clearing their arrest records.

The bill also expands the number of people able to take advantage of expunction by making two additional groups eligible: some youth charged as adults, and people convicted of more than one nonviolent misdemeanor who have remained crime-free for seven years after serving their punishment. Contrary to popular belief, research suggests there is little to no risk that these changes would endanger public safety. A study comparing arrest rates among those who received an expunction to the arrest rates of the general state population found them to be similar. And broader research suggests that, 10 years following their last offense, the risk of a convicted individual committing another crime is about the same as that of anybody in the general population. This length of time may be even shorter for people considered to be a low public safety risk or for those convicted as a youth or an older adult.

Rather than harming public safety, these priorities promise positive returns to people who have been convicted of a crime as well as to North Carolina communities more generally.

For these reasons, legislators should make the Second Chance Act one of their foremost priorities. This should be a fairly easy task: The bill was unanimously passed by the Senate and already has bipartisan support in the House.

North Carolinians should not suffer for being charged with a crime for which they were never proven guilty. And people who have paid their debt to society and proven their ability to live crime-free should not have to continue to face unending stigmatization and barriers to prosperity. It’s clear that The Second Chance Act presents a win-win-win for government efficiency, individuals and communities.

Image credit: ESB Professional

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