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Should a criminal record be a life sentence to poverty?

by | Aug 14, 2020 | Criminal Defense

Did you know that one in every three Americans has some type of criminal record? That’s 70 million people. Unfortunately, having a criminal record is extremely stigmatized, and it can keep you in poverty for a long time.

According to the Clean Slate Initiative, nearly nine out of every 10 employers, four in every five landlords, and three-fifths of colleges use criminal background checks in their application processes. Any criminal record, no matter how minor or old, could put a job, an apartment, or even education out of reach.

Even if you think that people should face serious, long-term punishment for the criminal offenses they commit, you must also realize that this stigma causes serious hardship for those involved — and for their families.

Almost half of all American children have at least one parent with a criminal record. That means those kids are exposed to unstable housing, unemployment and economic insecurity.

Record sealing could help

Most states, including Wisconsin, allow for at least some convictions to be sealed in an effort to keep them from showing up in background checks. However, the rules for record-sealing are often cumbersome, and many people don’t have access to the process.

Wouldn’t it be helpful if the process for record-sealing, also called “expungement,” were straightforward? Then, people with qualifying convictions could get the relief they need.

Pennsylvania passed what’s called a “clean slate” law a little over a year ago. The law allows for automatic record sealing of qualifying convictions after the person completes their sentence and remains crime free for a specified period of time.

The Clean Slate Initiative, which is organizing to promote such laws, says that the law has already cleared 1.15 million records of 47.3 million offenses in just the single year since it has been implemented. The law has been so successful that the state is working to expand it to more people and to eliminate more barriers.

The group is now working with partners in a number of states and with the federal government to expand automatic record sealing so more people can be given the opportunity for a fresh start.

When someone completes their criminal sentence, they should have the opportunity to work, live in a safe location, and get education without undue stigma. Marking people for life with a permanent criminal record can keep many people and their families in a cycle of poverty, especially in an economic downturn.

It is time to make it much easier to expunge a criminal record.

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