- - Wednesday, December 30, 2015

After rolling out of bed each morning, everyone follows their morning routines: showering, brushing their teeth, having breakfast and coffee. For my boyfriend and me, this morning ritual includes completing the almost daily drug and alcohol tests required for his felony probation. He is part of the nearly 30 percent of Americans who, as a result of a criminal record but despite the desire for a better life, has limited hope for the future.

America has the highest incarceration rate of any nation; we have less than 5 percent of the world’s population and 22 percent of the world’s prison population. Many of these prisoners committed low-level, victimless drug crimes, yet their punishment can be serious prison time and a life without opportunities after their release because of the stigma that comes with a criminal record.

The phrase “once a criminal, always a criminal” is becoming a reality for so many. The government programs we have in place to help ex-criminals get their lives back on track have very low success rates. In this country, we are manufacturing criminals and fueling recidivism because once you have a criminal record, it can be almost impossible to get a job, particularly one with the potential to improve your quality of life. As difficult as it is for everyday Americans to find a job, studies show that individuals with a criminal record are 50 percent less likely to receive a callback or job offer from a potential employer.

Let’s put aside well-founded questions about over-criminalization — about whether low-level crimes should have ever been prosecuted in the first place. Instead, let’s focus on where we are right now for the millions of Americans who did something wrong, supposedly paid their debt to society, and who want to make something of their lives but find a Scarlet C on their records, emblazoning them as criminals for any employer to see. What can be done for them so, if they have the desire and drive, they can make themselves a productive member of society?

The solution to this problem is expungement — the process by which a person can have his or her criminal record erased or sealed from public court records. With 92 percent of employers running background checks, open and available records will remain a serious barrier for anyone with even the slightest offense on their record, who wants to enter the American economic mainstream.

But for even the smallest offenders, getting a clean record can be a needlessly complicated and expensive process. Hiring a private attorney and working through the courts can range from about $1,500 up to $4,000 — a fortune for anyone who has just got out of prison or is making close to the minimum wage — and the outcome for this investment is by no means guaranteed. Certainly, equally effective low-cost alternatives should be made available if we want to help former inmates help themselves to a better life through honest work, and if we want to end recidivism and ease the taxpayer burden of more than $31,000 spent per prisoner each year.

Expungement is proving popular with candidates running the gamut, from libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul, who is on record in favor of expungement, to law-and-order former Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is also calling for expungement or sealing of juvenile records. (Keep in mind, if fate and good connections had not been so kind to the past three presidents, their drug use and possession might have drawn a conviction.)

Expungement is not a perfect solution, and no doubt many private background checking companies can and will find a way to share with potential employers even those records that have been expunged or sealed, but it is a step in the right direction.

What difference can expungement make in the life of an ordinary man or woman who wants to get on the right track again?

Consider the story of serial entrepreneur and successful businessman Doug Deason, who, at 17, threw a party at his neighbor’s house while they were away and was charged with felony burglary. His charge, reduced to a misdemeanor of criminal trespassing, was expunged from his record after probation. As a result, Mr. Deason’s family business now hires qualified nonviolent felons to effect change.

Or the story of an unnamed 41-year-old woman who was convicted of a drug charge in 2003, but was able to get it sealed in 2007. With the charge on her record, she struggled to get a minimum wage job at Burger King. After her record was sealed, however, she earned a management position at a local store, receiving benefits, and is now able to volunteer at her daughter’s school.

Expunging criminal records can help so many people in this situation, like my boyfriend, get on track to build a career, instead of keeping them — discouraged by poverty and a lack of opportunity — trapped in the cycle that led them to jail in the first place.

Gloria Cannon is a student at George Washington University in Washington D.C.

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