Report Highlights Recent Bipartisan Momentum Favoring Clean Slate Programs To Tackle Decades of Overcriminalization

Following decades of overcriminalization, 1 in 3 American adults now has a criminal record.

Photos: Justice & Accountability Center

Washington, D.C. — A new report from the Center for American Progress, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, and the National Employment Law Project examines recent momentum as well as lessons learned from a wave of clean slate and fair chance licensing reforms in states around the country.

Following decades of overcriminalization, 1 in 3 American adults now has a criminal record. Because of the proliferation of criminal background checks in the digital era, criminal records create barriers to employment, housing, education, and other basics, putting economic stability out of reach for tens of millions of individuals. The resulting criminal records crisis has become a major driver of poverty and racial inequality in the United States. The consequences ripple forward generationally, as nearly half of U.S. kids now have at least one parent with a record, according to a previous CAP analysis.

To remove barriers to opportunity for people with records and their families, CAP teamed up with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia in 2014 to propose a new idea called “clean slate.” Clean slate policies make criminal record clearance both automatic and automated, so that everyone who is eligible can access the benefits of record-clearing, regardless of whether or not they are able to afford a lawyer. As bipartisan momentum for expanding access to record-clearing has swept across the country, states as diverse as Pennsylvania, Utah, Michigan, Virginia, North Carolina, Connecticut, New York, Louisiana, Washington, California, and New Jersey have introduced or passed clean slate reforms or measures that pave the way for automatic record clearance, with popularity building in many more during 2021 state legislative sessions.

Meanwhile, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) has supported state leaders in adopting another new idea called fair chance licensing, which reforms state occupational licensing laws that impose unfair and unnecessary barriers to employment for people with records, in fast-growing fields like education and health care. A diverse group of states have adopted fair chance licensing reforms, including Rhode Island, Arizona, Illinois, Kentucky, and Louisiana, California, Delaware, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Tennessee, Arkansas, Iowa, Maryland, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Nevada, North Carolina, Texas, Utah, Idaho, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

In “A Criminal Record Shouldn’t Be a Life Sentence to Poverty,” the advocates and policy experts behind the clean slate and fair licensing movements highlight the transformational progress a diverse group of red, blue, and purple states made on these issues from 2017 to 2020; how Congress is poised to learn from the states by enacting similar reforms at the federal level; and some of the best practices and lessons learned from recent state progress.

Some of the top lessons include:

  • Bipartisan support has made success possible in states of all political stripes. Each of these reforms garnered support not only from a broad coalition, but also from elected officials from both sides of the aisle, paving the way to passage and making clean slate and fair licensing policies some of the few areas of consensus in this hyperpartisan era.
  • Broad-based stakeholder support can cement long-lasting change, while creating appetite for further reforms. Widely backed, bipartisan legislation that enjoys the support of a diverse coalition of stakeholders can create the conditions for a durable win that: (1) gets fully implemented, (2) faces low risk of rollback, and (3) motivates lawmakers to further build on change that everyone sees as a win.
  • Leadership of directly impacted communities is critical to this work. Centering the leadership and lived experiences of people affected by criminal records is essential to shape well-designed reforms that will actually help the people they are intended to help and build power and legislative expertise among the communities most impacted by broken policies, who are now rightly leading the way in shaping the reform agenda.
  • Removing barriers to opportunity for people with records is essential to racial justice and to a full and equitable recovery. The historic collision of the pandemic, economic crisis, and uprisings against structural racism and police brutality has underscored the urgency of enacting policies to remove barriers to opportunity for people impacted by the criminal legal system and to promote a full and equitable economic recovery.
  • Implementation planning for clean slate policies should be done upfront. Front-loading implementation planning is advisable to ensure that the bill that moves through the legislature is technically implementable and designed to take into account the state’s current criminal records data infrastructure.
  • Fines and fees are among the most significant barriers to record-clearing in the states. Widespread inability to pay fines and fees serves as a major obstacle to record clearance under existing petition-based systems. If not addressed proactively in the design of clean slate policies, huge numbers of otherwise eligible individuals will be shut out from getting their records cleared, with a disproportionate impact on communities of color.
  • A growing body of research underscores the cost of doing nothing and shows how status quo policies are leaving people with records behind. As shown throughout the report, several recent studies documenting the second chance gap reveal that an estimated 90 percent of people eligible for record-clearing are being left behind by petition-based systems, due to cost, complexity, and other barriers. Research on occupational licensing laws paints a similarly dismal picture, with workers with records largely shut out of the fastest-growing industries due to outdated and unjust licensing restrictions.
  • Clean slate and fair chance licensing reforms are complementary and can be mutually reinforced as part of a multipronged reform push. Several states have taken steps toward both clean slate and fair chance licensing reforms, in many cases following multi-issue second chance advocacy campaigns led by the same state leaders and coalitions.
  • While much progress on fair chance licensing reform has been made across the country in recent years, most states have opportunities for improvement. The progress on fair chance licensing reforms in recent years demonstrates interest in the concept among advocates and policymakers in those states. However, more work must be done to implement fair chance licensing policies in many more states

“In the digital era, a criminal record can be a life sentence to poverty,” said Rebecca Vallas, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-originator of the clean slate policy model. “As policymakers at all levels of government seek to recover from the economic crisis spurred by the pandemic, removing barriers to opportunity for people with records is a critical step, since we will never ‘build back better’ if we leave 70 million to 100 million Americans with criminal records and their families behind. Clean slate and fair chance licensing reforms are effective ways to remove barriers to opportunity so that everyone has a chance to participate in the economy. It’s past time for Congress to learn from the states and bring these reforms to the federal level.”

“Clean slate has made tremendous progress in states across the country, helping millions of people who have made mistakes move forward with their lives and access jobs, housing, and other opportunities,” said Sharon Dietrich, litigation director at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. “Congress should seize the momentum of clean slate and other second chance policies to help our economy recover from this devastating pandemic and address growing calls for criminal justice reform.”

“People with arrest and conviction records continue to demand that employers and policymakers remove unfair barriers to safe, living-wage jobs and stable careers,” said Beth Avery, senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project. “Much can be learned from the formerly incarcerated advocates who have led successful recent campaigns calling for policy changes that recognize their inherent dignity.”

Read the report: “A Criminal Record Shouldn’t Be a Life Sentence to Poverty” by Rebecca Vallas, Sharon Dietrich, and Beth Avery

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