Shutting people with records out of opportunity is economically foolish

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This opinion editorial was published in USA Today on November 23, 2018:

By David Plouffe and Mark Holden

Our nation’s failed experiment with overcriminalization has burdened between 70 million and 100 million people with criminal records. That’s nearly a third of the population. Millions are marked with a scarlet letter that can lead to a lifetime of closed doors.

And closing opportunities — in housing, education and, more than anything else, employment — isn’t just morally wrong, it’s bad economic policy.

The two of us don’t agree on much — one of us is a former Obama administration official and the other works for Koch industries. But we both believe adamantly in the need for second chances and in the economic boon our country would experience if we fully gave them to people with criminal records who have paid their debt to society.

And while there is some momentum in Congress to enact reforms on the federal level, the fact remains that the federal system is only a small part of America’s criminal justice problem. The lion’s share of criminal records come from the states, and there’s much states can do to put fair chances within reach, no matter what happens in Washington in the coming weeks.

Doesn’t make economic sense

Shutting people with criminal records out of the workforce costs the United States up to $87 billion in lost gross domestic product every year. Individuals who can’t make a living legally are more likely to continue breaking the law and are likely to go back to prison, causing costs to rise even higher. Needless, preventable cycles of recidivism strain government resources — and make our communities less safe.

If a job applicant has a criminal record, his chances of getting called back for the job or of getting a job offer are essentially cut in half. Sometimes, that bias is legally mandated. Most states have multiple occupational and business licensing laws that prohibit hiring people with felony convictions. Still, more legal restrictions deny formerly incarcerated people access to crucial resources like loans, credit and educational opportunities. And if these individuals want to vote to change that system — well, they often can’t do that, either.

It’s not just individuals who suffer because of this discrimination — it’s entire families. More than 33 million kids in the USA have a parent with a criminal record.

When formerly incarcerated people can’t find housing, their children are often forced to live with grandparents or sent into foster care. These challenges can lead to behavioral and school performance problems that get in the way of a kid’s future — making it more likely for that family to be trapped in a cycle of poverty for generations.

Current laws aren’t enough

There are already laws that are supposed to help folks get second chances. States allow people to petition to expunge or seal at least certain records.

Nonetheless, thanks to antiquated and complex application processes, the steep cost of legal assistance and expensive court fees, millions of eligible Americans can’t move on with their lives.

Clearing those records should be made much simpler. Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature and Democratic governor managed to work together this summer to do just that. They passed legislation, known as the Clean Slate Act, that will automatically seal certain types of records once a person has shown that he’s on the right track by remaining crime free for a set period. States as diverse as Michigan, South Carolina and Colorado are seeking to do the same.

It’s a commonsense move that will make a huge difference — both for individuals and for the economy.

In Michigan, improvements for the formerly incarcerated were seen even during the first year that their records were “set aside,” according to a University of Michigan study. Wages, for example, increased by 22 percent.

And data collected by the Society for Human Resource Management and the Charles Koch Institute show that most in the business world are open to hiring and working alongside individuals with criminal records.

The midterm elections exposed the deep divisions so many feel in this country. It also marked the start of political careers for a number of state legislators and governors. As they think about what they’ll prioritize during their terms, we hope they’ll take up legislation that will automatically seal or expunge records, to give people the chance to start over and strengthen their state and local economies.

Our nation works only if we keep our promises. This is a chance for state legislators to lead the way for their federal counterparts by moving past the divisions that too often define our politics. It’s an opportunity to come together — to strengthen our communities, to support our neighbors, to give people the opportunity to succeed. When we say that everyone deserves another chance and a fair shot at the American dream, let’s make sure we mean it.

David Plouffe is head of policy and advocacy at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and former campaign manager and senior adviser to President Barack Obama. Mark Holden is senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of Koch Industries, Inc.