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There are more than 70 million people in our country who have a conviction record. That translates to roughly one in every three Americans. The obstacles that those of us with records face are enormous. You would think that after we have completed our sentences, we should be able to move forward with our lives.
But the reality is that we face a multitude of often lifelong barriers that block us from essentials like steady jobs, educational opportunities, professional licenses, safe homes and more. In fact, the National Institute of Justice estimates 44,000 such barriers. These can severely limit or completely impede the ability of a person with a conviction history. They can’t effectively function in society and participate meaningfully in civic, economic and community life.
First takeaway: People with past convictions face an array of barriers to gainful employment
Due to widespread discrimination and stigma, individuals with conviction records are routinely blocked from employment opportunities. Even after having long ago completed their sentences. Whether a former CEO or trade worker, once an individual is branded with the scarlet letter of a conviction, it doesn’t matter who they were before. Many employers will quickly toss applications from formerly incarcerated individuals aside. The same for potential investors who will deny meetings with entrepreneurs who have records of conviction.
Predictably, the resulting economic insecurity, pain, shame and despair can be devastating. Not just for us as individuals, but for our families as well. People at every level of the workforce are impacted. But, systemic inequities and racially biased policing and prosecution in our country have yielded disproportionate rates of arrest, incarceration and conviction among low-income communities of color nationwide.
Second takeaway: There is a simple solution — provide people with a clean slate
Across the country, states are working to pass legislation that ensures individuals like me who have completed their sentences can have our records automatically cleared. There are many states where application-based sealing is currently an option. But this process is often incredibly burdensome and costly. Therefore preventing a significant number of people who would be eligible from actually having their records cleared. Efforts to automatically clear people’s records, also known as clean slate, help make it possible for all eligible individuals to start fresh. And, without having to navigate bureaucratic hurdles or spend money they don’t have.
When people have served their time and paid their debt to society, we deserve a second chance. A clean slate, erasure of the paralyzing, proverbial scarlet letter. Through automatic records clearance, this second chance can be fully realized — stable jobs, trade licenses, business ventures and secure homes would all once again be within our reach. Clean slate can give us the opportunity to truly move forward with our lives.
Third takeaway: Clean slate can help us all
Clean slate can give me and others with past conviction records a real chance at healing, justice and meaningful participation in the economy and communities we all share. It can also improve the well-being of entire families and communities. Individuals who want to work hard, support their families and contribute to their neighborhoods and local communities should be able to do so. We all know that children who grow up in poverty are far more likely to remain living in poverty throughout their lives — a brutal cycle known as intergenerational poverty.
Clean slate policies can help break this cycle. Furthermore, the benefit of clean slate policies for our economy at large cannot be overstated. The ACLU estimates that, nationally, excluding individuals with conviction histories from the workforce costs the economy between $78 billion and $87 billion in lost domestic product every year. With clean slate, employers looking to grow their businesses could tap into a huge pool of skilled workers. Without clean slate, we risk indefinitely locking away vast amounts of human potential. Amidst rising labor shortages, the great need for untapped talent is only increasing. Last, but certainly not least, clean slate can help begin to remedy the racial injustice pervading our country by breaking down the unjust barriers. Those that keep far too many Black and Brown Americans from reaching their full potential.
From social justice activists to Fortune 500 companies, clean slate has a diverse and wide array of supporters who believe in its immense potential. In New York, for example, the clean slate campaign has garnered support from top labor unions and business leaders like JPMorgan Chase. Also, faith leaders, survivors of crime, civil rights groups, law firms and health advocates. They all understand that not only is giving people a second chance the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do. As they say, a rising tide raises all ships.