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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa U.S. Sen Joni Ernst this week introduced a bipartisan bill to address some of the effects of the United States’ incarceration crisis.
The Clean Slate Act would for the first time automatically seal records for certain drug offenders and create a path for some other offenders to apply to have their records sealed. If passed, such a policy would help former prisoners get jobs, lead productive lives and avoid reoffending.
The problem is that many Americans continue to pay for their crimes long after they’ve completed their sentences. People with criminal records are sometimes treated as second-class citizens, excluded from employment, housing and educational opportunities, even though most pose no serious threat to the public. Under current law, even an arrest without a conviction can be a permanent demerit.
Ernst’s bill, introduced to coincide with Second Chance Month and National Reentry Week, is narrowly focused on low-level, non-violent drug offenders. It specifically excludes people convicted of violent crimes and sex offenses. It would only apply to federal charges, while most crimes are prosecuted at the state level.
“Even after paying their debt to society, oftentimes those who have been charged with low-level, nonviolent misdemeanors face significant barriers to employment, housing and other necessities,” Ernst said in a statement.
Ernst is co-sponsoring the bill with Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey. A bipartisan duo in the U.S. House plans to introduce a companion bill.
Similar federal legislation has been introduced at least twice before, attracting mostly Democrats as co-sponsors. Ernst is part of a growing conservative consensus in favor of criminal justice reform.
Getting caught up with the law for a minor offense often triggers a spiral into more serious crimes. It’s a waste of resources and it makes us less safe.
In addition to some of the usual progressive organizations, Ernst’s bipartisan bill is backed by a long list of right-wing advocacy groups and think tanks, including Americans for Tax Reform, Business Roundtable, Faith and Freedom Coalition, R Street Institute, Right on Crime, the American Enterprise Institute and FreedomWorks.
Conservative justice reformers see healthy reentry to society from prison as an economic issue. Criminal records are a barrier to gainful employment.
“There’s no better way to address recidivism than a good job. The Clean Slate Act gives those who want a better life for themselves an opportunity to succeed by empowering them to move past a mistake they have made,” Adam Brandon, FreedomWorks president, wrote in a statement supporting the bill.
Most people who commit serious crimes have already had some involvement with the criminal justice system. Nearly three-fourths of those convicted of federal crimes have a criminal record with an average of 6 previous offenses, according to a U.S. Sentencing Commission review of 2016 data.
That suggests that the local, state and federal correctional systems aren’t actually correcting offenders. Instead, getting caught up with the law for a minor offense often triggers a spiral into more serious crimes. It’s a waste of resources and it makes us less safe.
Sealing records is great, but it would be better to stop making so many criminal records in the first place. The Clean Slate Act is only a partial fix to a set of problems the government plays a large role in creating and exacerbating.
This bill would mostly impact non-violent drug criminals. Those people never should have been in federal prison to begin with.
Drug and public order offenses are common on-ramps to the criminal justice system. Decades of overcriminalization and extreme sentencing policies have helped create the biggest jailer state in the world, incarcerating a higher portion of the population than any other country.
If we close some of those on-ramps to the system - by downgrading criminal charges and fostering alternatives to incarceration - we might prevent vulnerable people from going on to commit more serious crimes. Blood and treasure would be saved.
If we really want a clean slate, our next step should be to wipe clear the overgrown criminal code.
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