Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | Most governments already have the capacity and technology to deliver automatic record clearance to all those eligible for relief equitably, expeditiously and at scale.
In a year when many observers are predicting policy gridlock, there’s one area where transformative progress can be made: helping people with criminal records get a fresh start. Across the country, Democrats, Republicans and independents agree that this is an issue ripe for reform.
In too many places today, past legal records follow people around, no matter how old or how minor their infractions. Moreover, as states embrace cannabis legalization and decriminalize small amounts of drugs, people shouldn't be held back by criminal records for things that aren't even crimes today. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at least 70 million people in America have some type of criminal record. Many of these folks are blocked from accessing well-paying jobs, housing, education, family life, and more because of their records.
Today, the pervasiveness of background checks means the barriers are only getting higher. Records prevent people from moving forward after contact with the legal system. Studies have found that 9 out of 10 employers and 4 in 5 landlords rely on record searches to make decisions on whether to hire or rent to individuals.
So what should be done?
States, working with law enforcement, should pursue a new approach to clearing records, one that uses technology to sort through criminal record data and determine who is eligible for record clearance in accordance with state law.
Across the nation—from California to Oklahoma to Michigan—automatic record clearance policies have already been adopted or are being considered. Last year, Oklahoma became the 10th state to join the bipartisan trend toward broadening the availability of record clearing to people with convictions, without requiring them to file a petition and go to court for relief. Another 8 states and Washington, D.C., have automatic record clearance for cannabis convictions. That means that one-third of states now have some policy to clear convictions automatically.
In Utah, for instance, under Republican Gov. Spencer Cox more than 350,000 criminal records are being cleared. The state worked with Code for America to develop and deploy specialized software—something the nonprofit group had previously done with California. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it saves money and makes it easier on government employees as compared to legacy approaches.
Similarly, in Rhode Island, Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell unveiled new rules that enable the clearance of tens of thousands of past cannabis charges.
This is a sharp break from the past, when the road to a clean slate involved putting the burden on individuals through something known as the petition process. Many people seeking relief would have to get a lawyer, petition a court, spend thousands of dollars and countless time with no guarantee of success. Few people even know they are eligible, and fewer manage to navigate this onerous process on their own.
The move to automatic reverses the dynamic and enables record clearance to be accomplished quickly, thoughtfully and at scale. In reality, it shifts the work away from individuals and places it with the government. It becomes the responsibility of states to identify eligible records and proactively clear them without people needing to file a petition. This is the same approach that is taken with regard to other government records, which become sunsetted after a designated period, like traffic infractions.
The good news is that criminal records can also be sunsetted. Today, every state in the union has the foundational tools it needs to clear records automatically, and they can build upon their systems now that the federal government has made funding available through the National Criminal History Improvement Program and other programs.
Aside from being the right thing to do, red states and blue states alike are realizing the economic growth that automatic record clearance policies enable. Clearing or expunging the records of residents translates into stronger local and state economies by opening up opportunities to millions of Americans.
One out of three adults has a criminal record, but automatic record clearance doesn't just benefit them. By opening a path to a fresh start, this policy benefits their partners, families and entire communities. Across the country, government leaders are coming to the same conclusion: Record clearance can and should be done automatically and at scale.
Jay Jordan is the CEO of the Alliance for Safety and Justice and National Director of TimeDone. He served time in prison for a crime he committed as a misguided teen.
Alia Toran-Burrell is the program director for the Clear My Record program at Code for America, the leading tech nonprofit that works with community leaders and governments to build equitable, accessible digital tools and services.
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