Opinion

Clear more criminal records to give people a fresh start

Hundreds hope to have their criminal records cleared at clinic

Huge lines surrounded the Urban League building at Wednesday evening's cleaning of criminal records workshop at Urban League, which drew hundreds of people trying to clear their criminal records. In July, the Charlotte Community Relations Committe
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Huge lines surrounded the Urban League building at Wednesday evening's cleaning of criminal records workshop at Urban League, which drew hundreds of people trying to clear their criminal records. In July, the Charlotte Community Relations Committe

North Carolina leaders are considering legislation that would substantially expand the number of people who are eligible to clear their criminal record, and simplify the process for doing so. These fellow citizens have been held accountable, yet are systematically being shut out of jobs, housing, and the chance to build a prosperous, law-abiding life.

North Carolina courts hand out nearly 100,000 convictions each year, but fewer than 2,000 people have had a conviction expunged (cleared or sealed) since the law was changed in 2011 to allow removal of a first-time misdemeanor or felony conviction from a person’s criminal record. That is why we will join state and national leaders from the business, faith, and law enforcement communities at the Capitol on May 7 – along with hundreds of directly affected people – to support their call for change.

The two of us may not agree on everything, but we share a fundamental belief that overcriminalization hurts our economy and denies opportunity to millions of people. Nothing is as American as the comeback story, yet we’re preventing so many in our communities from making their own comebacks possible.

As many as one-third of Americans have a criminal record – roughly the same number as those with college degrees – and one in two has a family member who has been incarcerated. Researchers estimate that time in prison and felony records drain $87 billion from our annual gross domestic product. With the vast majority of employers, landlords, and colleges using background checks in their decision-making, we are shutting the door on many people who are trying to move forward and contribute.

Even misdemeanor convictions and dismissed charges can have lifelong consequences for people who may already be struggling to make ends meet and support their families. In fact, nearly half of all children in the United States have a parent with a criminal record, and even brief contact with the criminal justice system has been shown to negatively affect everything from household income to school performance. In this way, the barriers imposed by a criminal record can have harmful ripple effects for generations and threaten the safety of our communities.

Fortunately, a growing number of states, including North Carolina, have taken important steps in recent years to help people clear their records if they remain crime-free. State lawmakers should be commended for these efforts, but there is still much more that can be done.

The process for removing convictions from a criminal record is often difficult to navigate, time-consuming, and costly. Accordingly, expunction is inaccessible to individuals who cannot afford to pay for an attorney, and only a small share of the people who are eligible for relief actually receive it.

Several bills being considered by the General Assembly this year would improve this process and provide much-needed relief to deserving North Carolinians. Legislation to expand eligibility, automatically remove dismissed charges that do not result in a conviction, and allow prosecutors to initiate expunctions have been sponsored by leaders from both political parties.

These reforms could be made even stronger if North Carolina follows the lead of Pennsylvania and Utah, which are automating their record-clearing processes. In these states, Republicans and Democrats united to pass common sense legislation that uses modern technology to clear the records of people who remain crime-free. These policies can substantially reduce the large gap between the number of people who are eligible for relief and those who are able to access it.

We are all more than the worst thing we have ever done. Providing a fresh start to people who have been held accountable should be one of the cornerstones of our criminal justice system. Opening doors for people who are trying to redeem themselves in the eyes of the law is not only good economic policy but the right thing to do.

David Plouffe is head of policy and advocacy at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and former campaign manager and senior adviser to President Barack Obama. Mark Holden is senior vice president of Koch Industries Inc.

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