Staff Columnist

Blum's 'Clean Slate Act' could interrupt cycle of crime

Criminal justice reform drawing broad bipartisan support

Katie Wiedemann/KCRG-TV9

The Ban the Box initiative refers to the box on many applications that asks if the applicant is a felon.
Katie Wiedemann/KCRG-TV9 The Ban the Box initiative refers to the box on many applications that asks if the applicant is a felon.

Americans with non-violent criminal records would get much-deserved second chances under a new federal proposal.

U.S. Rep. Rod Blum last month introduced the Clean Slate Act, which would seal some criminal records for some non-violent offenders. Currently, those records remain publicly accessible long after debts to society have been paid, making it difficult for even some low-level offenders to seek education, secure employment or find housing.

A one-time mistake as a teen or young adult can lead to a life of poverty. It’s little wonder why so many criminals end up reoffending, given their bleak chances for gainful employment.

“The issue is cyclical — if we do not remove barriers and create opportunities for these individuals to re-enter society, we are setting them up to fail. Statistically, these individuals are more likely to fall into habitual crime and end up incarcerated once again without jobs and a support system,” Blum wrote in a statement announcing the bill.

Under Blum’s proposal, misdemeanor federal drug crimes and all non-violent federal marijuana charges would be automatically sealed from the public record. The bill also creates a system to allow other offenders to petition to have their records sealed. Under current law, only the president can seal federal records that aren’t automatically sealed.

The vast majority of American landlords and employers run criminal background checks on applicants, and more than half of colleges do the same, according to stats gathered by the Center for American Progress. For the tens of millions of Americans with a criminal record, that makes it incredibly difficult to make a living or raise a healthy family.

The rest of us suffer as well. Unemployment connected to criminal histories creates an enormous burden to the U.S. economy, totaling an estimated $65 billion hit to the gross domestic product in a 2010 study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The toll has almost certainly grown since then.

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Bipartisan consensus over the need for criminal justice reform is quickly growing. State-level policies similar to the Clean Slate Act have earned support from groups at odds with each other on most other issues, like the Center for American Progress and FreedomWorks. Blum, a member of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, is sponsoring the bill with U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, a Delaware Democrat and member of the Congressional Black Caucus and Progressive Caucus.

Earlier this year, both Johnson County and Linn County, led by Democrats, adopted policies against asking for criminal histories on county job applications, known as a “Ban the Box” policy. Reasonable exceptions are made for some positions, like law enforcement jobs or working with children. The Iowa-Nebraska National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has advocated for a similar policy at the state level.

Building a workable justice system will require effort from federal, state and local leaders. As federal policymakers negotiate on a broader criminal justice reform package, the Clean Slate Act deserves thorough consideration.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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