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Why Conservatives Should Support Expunging Criminal Records

Minor arrests and convictions can taint a person for life. But there is a way to get 'a clean slate.'

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Addiction has enveloped much of Armando Aguilar’s life since he came into this world. It ran rampant in his family. And when he was just 15, Aguilar began to pick up criminal convictions rooted in his own substance abuse problem.

This year, Aguilar celebrates 16 years of sobriety, and 16 years since his last run-in with the law. He is now a father, a husband, a school volunteer, and a substance abuse counselor who works with high-risk youth. Aguilar’s success was made possible by a state law that expunged his convictions. Now that a decade has passed, he reflects on that law’s power: “My expungement gave me the confidence to turn my life around.”

That’s the American dream—the ability to have a second chance, an Act II to one’s story. But for close to a third of Americans, one mistake—even a minor one made decades ago—can hold them back for the rest of their life. 

Right now, a lack of knowledge, exorbitant fees, and complex processes prevent many people from having their records expunged. Luckily, there’s a path to redemption that can lift the burden of a criminal record off people’s shoulders. It is a policy called the “Clean Slate” initiative, which would automate record clearance for Americans who have minor records and have remained crime-free for a given number of years.

Conservatives should claim this cause as their own. Clean Slate improves our workforce, supports families, and makes our communities safer. And it supports the core of conservatism—a limited, effective government—so that individuals like Aguilar, and his family and community, can thrive. 

Workforce and Dignity

President George W. Bush spoke of “the non-negotiable demands of human dignity”—a value that should be front and center in our criminal justice system. Respect for human dignity is what separates a legitimate system from one that treats individuals as less than human. While we must hold people accountable when they have violated the law, we should respect their dignity as human beings throughout the process. Failure to do so makes us all less than human.

Dignity cannot be given or earned; it is inherent to all people. Still, it can be dishonored. So many of our fellow Americans who have already paid their debt to society have had their dignity dishonored, especially in our workforce. 

For many, working and providing for one’s family is fundamental to preserving their dignity. “I love my job,” says Aguilar. “Getting up every day, seeing the kids and what I can do to help them, and later seeing the graduation invitations get dropped off. It’s a great feeling.” 

Unfortunately, it is estimated that 9 out of 10 employers run background checks on prospective employees, and any record—even just an arrest record, not a conviction—can make them less likely to hire a given applicant. In fact, research suggests that having a criminal record reduces a person’s chances of receiving a job callback by an average of 50 percent. When individuals are ready to work but are unable to find opportunities due to their records, we perpetuate their shame and isolation. While some policies, like certificates of relief or rehabilitation, can help inform employers of an individual’s potential, expungement remains the most effective way to bring individuals into the workforce. 

Aguilar experienced such obstacles firsthand. Before his expungement, he was interviewing to work with high-risk youth for a pilot program at a community agency. As someone who has been through the system himself, he’s a uniquely credible messenger for young people in trouble—someone they would listen to and trust. But during his interview, the employer said, “I really want you. But we can’t take you any further with your record.” 

“It took the wind out of my sails,” Aguilar recalls.

Jobs like Aguilar’s also require occupational licenses. These licenses operate as government permission slips fornearly a quarter of all occupations—many of them well-paid and highly sought after. Occupational licenses, generally speaking, are a regulatory burden and create unnecessary costs and processes without any return on safety or quality. On average, these laws require an exam, over $260 in fees, an examination, and a year of education and experience.

As Aguilar explains, getting the necessary education and training for a license to work in his desired career was only the first step. Many licensing boards bar those with criminal records from obtaining licenses, even when they are not directly related to their record. Aguilar explains that the licensing board made an exception in his case, a decision facilitated by his expungement. 

These hurdles would perhaps be justifiable if a record was an effective proxy for conveying important information to employers. For instance, if those with a record tended to be poor employees or threaten harm to public or workplace safety, employers’ knowledge of that record would be useful. But instead, the opposite is often true.

By clearing obstacles to obtaining licenses, the Clean Slate initiative hands the decision of whether serious records disqualify candidates back to where it belongs: with the private employer, not government bureaucrats. But for minor records, individuals should receive second chances, and the Clean Slate initiative would automate these expungements. 

Public Safety

When individuals are able to maintain steady, quality employment, they are less likely to resort to committing crimes. It’s easy to see why: employment offers people access to housing, education, and other resources that stabilize their lives. Thus, by facilitating employment, expungements enhance public safety.

Additionally, when individuals find work as helpers and mentors in their communities, there are “trickle-down” public safety benefits. Engaging mentors in the community has been shown to decrease re-offending rates among mentees. Yet too often, policies prevent justice-involved individuals from getting the jobs through which they can communicate with and positively influence high-risk youth. The Clean Slate initiative expunges the records of would-be mentors so they aren’t shut out of employment positions where they can do the most good. 

Some commentators have argued that the public should know about a person’s past—that this knowledge will keep society safer. But research suggests that after a few years of living crime-free, individuals reach a “point of redemption” where they are no more likely than anyone in the general population to commit future crimes. Expunging records increases public safety by promoting second chances for individuals whose records no longer hold predictive value or significance.

Strong, healthy families

Criminal records can sentence entire families to a life of poverty. One study estimates that our country could have experienced a 20 percent reduction in poverty from 1980 to 2004 if it had not been for the barriers caused by incarceration and criminal records. A record often means unemployment or underemployment for parents, leading to a cycle of familial poverty, housing instability, and lowered economic mobility.

What’s more, a parent’s criminal record can have an enormous negative effect on a child—from their emotional and physical well-being to their future life chances. Without the steady, positive influence of a parent, a child’s school performance can suffer. When parents face perpetual challenges in meeting basic needs, children are more likely to suffer short-term consequences like behavioral and cognitive issues in school, as well as long-term consequences like poorer physical and mental health in adulthood, as well as lowered future employment and educational prospects. 

The Clean Slate initiative can mitigate many of these effects. Aguilar’s expungement has enabled him to be the best father he can be. It has improved his employment prospects and made him more able to provide for his family. It’s also allowed him to pass the background check required by his children’s school so that he can volunteer in their classes. It’s made him a role model to his children: “My children are proud of what I do. My daughter knows I work with people who have addiction issues, and so she wants to help the homeless. My son wants to be a first responder. Both my children are passionate and want to help others.” 

The Case for Automation: Promoting limited, effective government

The truth is that right now, very few people take advantage of expungements. Aguilar is in the minority—he was fortunate enough to come across a legal clinic to assist him. Still, Aguilar describes the process as arduous, consisting of a trip to the sheriff’s office, meetings with the clinic, forms to fill out, and court hearings. It’s no wonder one study found that only 6.5 percent of individuals who were eligible actually received an expungement. By perpetuating inefficient and unnecessarily complex processes, the current system is the antithesis of limited, effective government.

Automating the process with available technology to alert those who have expungeable records would not only streamline matters but make it more fair. Automation also means that valuable hours of staff and court time, not to mention taxpayer dollars, aren’t wasted on relief that we’ve determined individuals are entitled to under the law. And while automation might have short-term startup costs, it will result in long-term cost savings. 

Aguilar imagines a world where his relief would have been automatic: “It would have given me opportunities I didn’t have. I was intimidated to apply for things. It would have increased my confidence, and I would have been more ambitious.” 

Conservatives should scrutinize every law imposed and test whether it truly enhances human dignity. Preserving every arrest and criminal record in perpetuity does not make us safer or better off. Instead, we would do well to support a path to redemption for individuals like Aguilar by supporting the Clean Slate initiative. 

Nila Bala is associate director of Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties at the R Street Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy think tank.

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