Here is something to consider: You can declare personal bankruptcy and have it completely deleted from your credit report after only 10 years. This system was put in place to encourage risk taking, because where there is risk taking, there is economic progress for all. In that manner, the American value of a second chance for anyone actually ends up benefiting everyone.
Yet, possession of a drug stays on your record and, with the existence of companies like Google, nonviolent offenders have an evergreen and never-ending black mark. If you have been arrested, it is probable that your name and previous crime pop up prominently in a Google search.
The First Step Act, which was signed by President Donald Trump on Friday, moves criminal justice reform in this country in the right direction by moderating overly harsh sentencing practices.
Now that the bill has been signed into law, the second step is for Congress to follow the lead of states working to expunge the criminal records of people with minor crimes.
We need to focus on what happens to inmates upon release. When they can’t find meaningful employment due to their criminal records, they are more likely to engage in illegal activity and return to prison. The three-year recidivism rate for state prisoners across the U.S. is approximately two-thirds. This means that for every 100 people released from prison, 66 will end up back in prison. In California, the average recidivism rate is 65%, but that rate can drop to 3% for people who get jobs soon after release. Moreover, one recent study found that when people’s eligible criminal records are expunged—and that employment barrier removed—their employment rates and earnings both increase.
Earlier this year, strong bipartisan support helped the “Clean Slate” law sail through Pennsylvania’s legislature. The new law requires automatic sealing of records for misdemeanor offenses if a person has been free from convictions for 10 years. Similarly, South Carolina passed a measure earlier this year to make it easier for people to expunge certain low-level and first-time criminal offenses from their records. Other states, including Colorado, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Oregon, are also making it easier for some people convicted of certain drug-related crimes to get their records sealed or expunged.
This is all geared toward helping former inmates get jobs. There is routine discrimination by employers against people who have committed crimes. Even if you agree that employers should discern the records of former inmates (I get it, I’m an employer), the greater cost to society is not having these people in jobs and generating tax dollars. This is especially true now that we have historically low unemployment rates. It’s simple; companies need employees.
Such a change could have a significant impact, given how many people are currently imprisoned in this country. The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world and the highest incarceration rate. Today, there are 2.2 million people in U.S. prisons and jails. This represents the combined population of Hawaii and Alaska, or the entire population of Houston.
If we can wipe the record clean for people who have been in bankruptcy, we can certainly do something for nonviolent offenders as well. This will increase employment for people with criminal records and help their families. It might even be fair—it allows everyone that second chance.
Brian Hamilton is founder of Inmates to Entrepreneurs and co-founder of Sageworks.