Imagine if your whole life was defined by a mistake. A lapse in judgment at 19 or 20 meant you couldn’t get a job, find a place to live or provide for your children at 40 or 50.
This is the unfortunate reality for many of the one in three Americans with a criminal record, because nearly nine in 10 employers, four in five landlords and three in five colleges conduct criminal background checks to screen applicants. Even a minor, long-ago infraction can turn into a life sentence to poverty.
The net impact of this is huge. One study estimated that $87 billion in economic activity is lost each year in the United States due to obstacles associated with criminal records. Connecticut’s portion of that lost economic activity is roughly $1 to $1.2 billion.
Fortunately, there’s a solution before the Connecticut legislature. The Clean Slate Actwould create a system of automatic expungements of criminal records for those that have completed their sentence and remained crime-free for three years after a misdemeanor and five years after a non-violent felony.
Existing law in Connecticut already allows people to apply to have their records expunged three years after a misdemeanor and five years after a felony. However, the current process for record clearing is so onerous that few people ever get these expungements. Many people don’t know they can apply. Many others are intimidated and never complete the extensive application process. Few people can afford to hire a lawyer to assist them, and even those that do complete an application are often rejected for seemingly arbitrary reasons or no stated reason at all.
The Clean Slate bill would make expungements automatic, provided that a person remains crime-free. Potential expungements for violent felonies would continue to be reviewed by the Board of Pardons and Paroles on a case-by case-basis.
Once implemented, Clean Slate has the potential to bolster the state’s economy by fully tapping the talents of thousands of people who are currently unemployed or underemployed because of their criminal records.
New research from the University of Michigan shows just how life-changing this can be. Researchers found that in Michigan, the wages of people who receive expungements increase by more than 20 percent in the year following their expungement. What’s more, the researchers found that people who receive expungements tend to remain crime free and actually broke the law at lower rates than Michigan’s general adult population.
The benefits of Clean Slate are clear: lower crime rates, taxpayer money saved as a result of reduced incarceration, and a stronger economy that allows more qualified job seekers to participate. That’s why, in this hyper-partisan era, Clean Slate bills have received bipartisan support to become law in both Pennsylvania and Utah. Clean Slate legislation is also being considered in states as diverse as California and Michigan. Federal Clean Slate legislation was even introduced in Congress last year.
Connecticut is seen as a leader for its adoption of smart and effective reforms to its criminal justice system. These reforms have significantly reduced the state’s prison population, begun to improve conditions and opportunities for people in prison and saved hundreds of millions of dollars. Now the legislature and Gov. Ned Lamont have a chance to make meaningful reforms for Connecticut residents who have completed their sentences and are trying to rebuild their lives.
Clean Slate gives people who have moved on from the worst moments of their lives the chance to earn their success by removing obstacles to a home, an education and a job. We urge the legislature and Gov. Lamont to pass Clean Slate and give them that chance.
Rebecca Vallas is vice president for poverty policy at the Center for American Progress. Marc Levin is vice president of criminal justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which houses the national Right on Crime initiative.