Recently, a woman came into the offices of the Justice & Accountability Center of Louisiana looking for help. She wanted to be a nurse, but she couldn’t. Not because she wasn’t committed to helping her community. She was. Not because we don’t need more nurses. We do.
But simply because state laws stopped her from pursuing her required clinical classes in nursing school―in the midst of a global pandemic―because she had completed a diversion program.
We paid the $550 filing fee (the highest in the country!) to get her record expunged and put her on track to her dream. But her story is far from unique.
Across America, tens of millions of people—including many who have never been convicted of a crime—are saddled with arrest or criminal records that block their access to jobs, housing, education, starting a business, or participating fully in social and civic community life.
As the nation marks Second Chance Month, it is important to keep in mind that nearly one in three American adults has a criminal record, which can shadow a person in nearly every interaction they have with society.
Nearly nine in 10 employers, four in five landlords, and three in five colleges use background checks to screen applicants. People with criminal records are half as likely as other jobseekers to get a callback from an employer.
And shutting people out of the labor market due to criminal records costs the U.S. economy an estimated $87 billion per year in lost GDP.
And about half of American children have a parent with a criminal record. That can have negative consequences for children throughout their entire lives, ranging from negative consequences for childhood cognitive development and school performance, to employment outcomes in adulthood.
This issue hits women particularly hard.
Women are the fastest growing demographic in prisons and jails. Even as the nation begins a long-overdue decarceration, the rate of decarceration among women is much slower than among men.
Some states are actually incarcerating more women even as they shrink their prison population. Between 2009 and 2015, Michigan reduced the number of men incarcerated in its state prisons by 8 percent, but actually jailed 30 percent more women over the same period, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
Women are also more likely to be incarcerated in jail before their trial – while they are legally presumed innocent―for the sole reason of not being able to pay their bail. And, among people detained in jail for failure to pay bail, Black women in particular have the lowest income levels, making them least likely to be able to afford bail.
Even women who are not in direct contact with the criminal legal system themselves are often still most disparately harmed. One in four women have a relative who is incarcerated. Women are disproportionately the first person someone reaches out to when they’re arrested, meaning they are more often on the hook to pay the bail bondsman, the lawyer, exorbitant fees (such as $6 for a 15-minute phone call) to keep our families together, and eventually the fees for record expungement.
Grandmas, moms, sisters, and wives are literally paying the financial debt, not to mention the emotional toll, of sharing or taking over caregiving responsibilities, and managing stress as they step in to help.
These injustices have long-term effects, including interrupting generational wealth. When women are barred from jobs, education, and housing due to old arrest or criminal records, their entire families often lose income and access to the long-term saving benefits that are often provided through employment like retirement accounts.
Nearly 80 percent of incarcerated women are mothers. More than half are primary caregivers.
When a mother is incarcerated, children are more likely to experience homelessness and often end up in foster care. They pay the price for their mother’s incarceration through increased psychological and behavioral problems, insufficient sleep and poor nutrition, and too often are pushed into the criminal legal system themselves.
We are sending an entire generation of women into the world burdened with unnecessary and devastating barriers to success. When our loved ones, friends, neighbors and community members are barred from fully participating in society and our economy, we all lose out.
We can do better.
We cannot continue punishing women who should have a second chance at freedom and opportunity. A criminal record should not be a life sentence to poverty, exclusion and stigma.
The answer is clear. Everyone should get a chance at a Clean Slate. We need to empower states to automatically seal or expunge qualifying criminal records for people who remain crime-free for a set period of time.
In the vast majority of states, record clearance is only possible through a time intensive and costly petition-based process, which is inaccessible for the vast majority of eligible people. An automatic “Clean Slate” process is more equitable, consistent and cost-effective by applying to all eligible records―regardless of a person’s race or wealth.
These changes are being made state by state.
In Louisiana, for example, government and community stakeholders have worked together for two years to create a path for a government-initiated expungement process, driven by technology, that will increase access to record-clearing for the thousands who have been shut out of the process. With the legislative session that begins April 12, we are advocating for this legislation and will monitor the two-year implementation period.
But we need faster, broader action. Unless and until there is systemic change, we’ll be forced to tackle this crisis one woman at a time.
And while we do, how many nurses and home-care workers and teachers are we missing out on because people can’t get those jobs with criminal records?
It’s long past time to wipe the slate clean.
Sheena Meade is Managing Director of the Clean Slate Initiative. Vanessa Spinazola is Executive Director of the Justice & Accountability Center of Louisiana.