With the first presidential debate slated for later this month, candidates will be expected to articulate their stances on a number of major policy issues, including policing and criminal justice reform. As both campaigns prepare, one particular initiative they should pay close attention to is a policy called “Clean Slate” — or the process of expanding and automating criminal record clearing. Such legislation crosses party lines and its value should be readily apparent to whichever candidate ends up in the White House come January 2021.
Americans have long articulated our collective drive for improvement with the adage of being able to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” But for those with a criminal history record, the weight of moving upward is unbearable. Some have equated a criminal record to a life sentence to poverty. This hardship weighs on an extraordinary number of citizens — about one in three Americans now have some type of criminal record. That record can affect every aspect of a person’s life. For example, approximately nine in 10 employers, four in five landlords and three in five colleges use background checks to screen applicants, which limits a person’s ability to establish meaningful employment, to live in a safe home and to increase their education.
Clean Slate policies can change this and enhance human dignity, individual autonomy and public safety.
After individuals have fulfilled their sentences and a crime-free waiting period, expungements –– or erasing a person’s criminal record –– are an effective way to improve employment prospects. An expungement can improve wages by 25 percent, allowing justice-involved individuals to take care of their families and contribute to the economy. Indeed, criminal records are costly to us all — they account for more than $78 billion lost annually in annual GDP because of unemployment and underemployment.
What’s more, expungements can actually promote public safety. Individuals with cleared records are more likely to be employed, and research shows that when people have stable, sustainable work, they are less likely to commit crimes. Once a person returns to their community, the value of using a criminal record to assess their likelihood of reoffense diminishes. After a person has been crime-free for a few years, they have reached what researchers call the “point of redemption” — meaning they are no more likely than anyone in the general population to commit a crime. It is counterproductive to continue to punish them due to their criminal record and hinder their ability to successfully reenter into society.
Unfortunately, few eligible individuals take advantage of expungements because of unnecessarily complex rules that require an abundance of time and money. For indigent citizens, this is nearly impossible, which is why one study found only 6.5 percent of those who are eligible apply for an expungement. But with the passage of Clean Slate legislation, governments can automatically clear these records, taking the onus off individuals and improving our economy and public safety in the process.
Automated record clearing, while potentially life-changing, is not new, nor should it be considered partisan. Clean Slate legislation has been introduced and passed in some states, and it is building momentum across the country. This policy is more important than ever as many courts have closed or limited access due to the pandemic. Because automation removes the need for individuals to file their petitions in person, it limits in-person contact, improving public health and efficiency.
Clean Slate is truly a bipartisan policy, one of few that liberals and conservatives have come together to pass in Pennsylvania and Utah. It gives those with criminal records a real second chance and improves our safety and economy in the process. No matter which party you identify with, Clean Slate is worth supporting.