At least there’s one bright spot in the ugly political season, and we can see it here in Wake County.
It’s a new program that provides some nonviolent ex-offenders the chance to expunge criminal records that too often become life sentences barring them from work, housing and education.
Hundreds of residents are seeking relief under the program spearheaded by Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman.
“We want to help people who’ve made a mistake – but who have otherwise been on a good path – get the relief the law entitles them to,” Freeman told The N&O last week.
This effort is part of a long overdue national push embraced by Democrats and Republicans to address one impact of America’s tough-on-crime policies.
About 2.2 million people are now held in our federal and state prisons and county jails – one out of every 110 Americans. Those facilities release more than 600,000 inmates annually. At least 70 million people have a criminal record, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Wake County’s program, which is modeled on successful efforts in New Hanover and Buncombe counties, addresses the fact that criminal records often make it hard for those who have paid their debt to society to find work.
There are as many as 800 occupations for which a felony conviction is an automatic disqualification, according to a 2007 paper published in the journal of Criminology and Public Policy. This makes sense in some cases: convicted bank robbers probably shouldn’t be tellers, drunk drivers shouldn’t be long-haul truckers and sex offenders should not be working in schools.
The prohibitions, however, are so broad that most any felony conviction is a hurdle to any gainful employment. Until a recent legal settlement, for example, it was almost impossible for anyone with an arrest record to work as a temporary census taker.
That’s one reason many people wind up back in jail. While scholars have sharp disagreements over the recidivism rate – some studies have found as many as 76 percent of people released from jail are rearrested while others put the figure at closer to one third – there is no dispute that the rate is heartbreakingly high.
Men with criminal records comprise about a third of all nonworking men aged 25 to 54, according to a New York Times poll.
Fortunately, the Wake County program isn’t the only initiative addressing this. The national Ban the Box movement urges employers to inquire about the applicant’s criminal history at the end of the hiring process, so that it does not overshadow other qualifications. Such Fair Chance Hiring Policies have been adopted in 24 states and may reduce recidivism.
To his great credit, President Obama has focused on efforts to help people with criminal records pursue an education. The Fair Chance Higher Education Pledge he issued in June asks institutions to consider removing questions regarding an applicant’s criminal history.
In response, the State University of New York became the first university to announce it will join at least 61 other public and private colleges in phasing-out such questions on its general application. Sensibly, SUNY will make such inquiries when necessary, including when students “seek campus housing or participation in clinical and field experiences, internships or study abroad programs.”
While applauding these efforts, we should not discount their constraints. There is plenty of competition for the types of low-skill jobs many former prisoners seek. In an era of big data, where criminal background checks are a mouse click away, they are a cheap and easy way for employers to winnow applicant pools.
“Criminal background screening is an important tool – really the only tool – that employers have to protect their customers, their employees and themselves from criminal behavior,” Todd McCracken, president of the National Small Business Association, told Congress in 2014.
More significantly, these efforts do not address the larger problem – the behavioral patterns that land so many people in jail. Our prisons are not filled with innocents, or people doing hard time for possessing a marijuana cigarette. Fifty-four percent of those in state prisons were convicted “for violent crimes, including murder, kidnapping, manslaughter, rape, sexual assault and armed robbery,” according to the Marshall Project. Almost all the rest committed other serious crimes, ranging from drug sales and drunk driving to theft and home invasion.
As with our troubled schools, our criminal justice system offers no easy fix. The deeper problems cannot be fixed by a single policy.
Nevertheless, the Wake County program might make a difference for people whose lives should not be shrouded by a debt they have already paid.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.