Congress is on the verge of passing a sorely needed criminal justice reform bill with broad bipartisan support, but a handful of holdouts stand in the way. How many times can we watch raw politics get in the way of real progress at the federal level? These holdouts would be wise to take note of what the people they represent want. At the state level, across the country, voters and elected officials are increasingly bridging their differences to embrace criminal justice reform.
The most prominent recent example of this came last month when Florida voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative to restore voting eligibility to more than 1.4 million Floridians living with a past felony conviction.
In a remarkable display of unity, and during an otherwise highly divided election cycle in that state, Florida voters of all walks of life came together around a basic issue of fairness—that once a debt has been paid, our loved ones with past convictions should be brought back into society. By demonstrating broad agreement across geographies, ethnic and racial differences, and political affiliations, Florida voters showed what it looks like to stand up for a real second chance and criminal justice reform. That’s an outcome that should bring us all hope and inspiration—but voting-rights restoration should only be a first step to truly repair the road to redemption.
While being barred from voting for life is an extreme example of the kinds of absurd barriers that people living with past convictions face, it is unfortunately very far from the only one. That is why the Alliance for Safety and Justice, of which I am the co-founder and vice president, recently launched a national public education campaign to raise awareness of the lifetime barriers people with past convictions face. The Time Done campaign dares to ask the question, “When will our sentence end?”
What many Americans may not realize is that those with past convictions face a lifetime of legal prohibitions, long after their sentences are completed and they are living crime-free, in every area from jobs to housing, education, and more.
States across the country should take inspiration from the remarkable Amendment 4 campaign in Florida to build a national movement strong enough to end all of the unfair legal prohibitions to stability and basic needs that those with past convictions face. For the sake of public safety, our economy, and the health of our families, it’s time to be done when time is done.
People living with old convictions across the country face nearly 50,000 legal barriers after completing their sentences.
Those barriers include blocking their ability to earn a job, access housing, secure student or housing loans, join professional trade associations, get certified in specialized professions, pursue higher or continuing education, and many more. There are even barriers that can prevent someone from adopting or fostering a family member in need, driving a car, or accessing victims’ services if they become the victim of a crime. The vast majority of these restrictions have no correlation to the crime committed and apply even after the person has completed all the terms of the sentence imposed.
In California, for example, people living with a past conviction, regardless of the crime, can’t volunteer in a school, even their own children’s schools. In Michigan, licensing agencies can bar those with almost any past criminal record from obtaining professional licenses. This is especially challenging because more than 150 professions in the state require a license, including barbers, dance instructors, and nail technicians.
These barriers do not just affect a small portion of our country—nearly every family and community in the country is impacted. Approximately 1 in 3 Americans are living with a past conviction or record. National research estimates that as many as 36 million children have at least one parent living with a conviction—that’s nearly half of all children in this country.
The harm extends from entire families to our economy, with a suggested loss of $78 billion to $87 billion in GDP in 2014 from the employment restrictions on people living with a past conviction, according to a 2016 analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
A recent California report, “Repairing the Road to Redemption in California,” included a first-of-its-kind survey of people living with a past conviction. The report revealed 1 in 5 Californians (8 million total) are living with a past conviction or record. Eight in 10 people with an old conviction reported experiencing barriers to success. The report also found that “the negative impacts of a felony conviction disproportionately impact people of color, people living in urban areas, people without a college degree, and people who are low income. The largest disparities relate to finding a job or housing.” Policy reforms are urgently needed to give people a real chance to earn redemption.
We are beginning to see momentum around this issue. This year, eight states have passed bills to remove some obstacles to obtaining professional licenses for those with past convictions.
Pennsylvania recently enacted a “clean slate” law to provide relief for people living with a conviction. This new law will automatically seal many criminal records after 10 years, allowing people to fill out forms and applications without having to disclose a decades-old past conviction. A diverse group of organizations and philanthropists are also advancing policy solutions to automate clearing old records.
The success of the Florida effort is a credit to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and the entire Floridians for a Fair Democracy campaign that stayed out of the partisan political arena and brought diverse Floridians into a conversation about why it is in everyone’s interest to give people a second chance.
The campaign made the case about a bad Florida law, but the bigger issue matters in every state. Allowing people living with past convictions to earn redemption leads to increased stability, lower recidivism rates, and increased contributions to society. It’s overwhelmingly the right approach if the health and safety of communities are prioritized.
Nationally, we must continue working together in diverse economic, racial, and political coalitions to build a road to redemption that creates safer communities.
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