Widespread civic engagement is the bedrock of a healthy democracy. Yet Americans with criminal records face severe consequences that dramatically limit their ability to fully participate in their communities. These restrictions not only harm those with records but also weaken the strength of American democracy writ large, as critical perspectives are left out of community engagement and advocacy. To improve this state of affairs, the United States must embrace policies for those with past criminal records that encourage both a culture of rights restoration and participation. As a baseline, this effort must involve the widespread adoption of policies that ensure the automatic expungement of eligible criminal records.
While participation in democracy is most commonly associated with activities such as voting or running for office, it takes a full range of civic engagement activities to build a strong society. Having a criminal record, however, greatly limits people’s ability to partake in these activities. Beyond the explicit restrictions on the voting rights of those convicted of serious crimes in certain states, a criminal record can significantly damage an individual’s ability to secure stable employment, higher education, and safe housing—making it much more difficult for them to have the time and opportunity to volunteer at nonprofits, attend local government meetings, or join parent-teacher associations. With so many Americans dealing with the devastating effects of a criminal record, a large percentage of the U.S. population is unable to fully engage with their communities.
A lifetime of limits for millions
Nearly 1 in 3 American adults hold some type of criminal record, including misdemeanors and arrests. As a result, nearly half of all American children have at least one parent with a criminal record. Furthermore, the United States incarcerates both more total people and more people per capita than any other country.
As noted above, the consequences of a criminal record can continue for a lifetime. And America has one of the most punitive collateral punishment systems in the world, with one report documenting more than 44,000 separate “collateral consequences” in state and federal law imposed on those with records. Such penalties continue to punish justice-involved individuals long after a sentence ends, affecting their access to employment and licensing, housing, and political participation.
A perverse state of affairs
The economic losses caused by collateral consequences often directly counter the goals of reentry programs in prisons. In California, for example, the state paid incarcerated people around $3 per day to fight fires, undercutting any argument that these individuals would be unqualified to do this job after their sentence ended. Yet due to restrictions on licensing for firefighters, which often include EMT certification, formerly incarcerated people are banned—either explicitly or in practice—from ever obtaining the necessary licenses to use their skills.
The same goes for those who receive training to become barbers while incarcerated but then are blocked from making a living from this marketable skill due to licensing requirements.
Background checks for employment, in particular, often have dire consequences for justice-impacted individuals, as job applicants are at least 50 percent less likely to get a callback if they have a criminal record. Overall, an estimated 1 in 4 Americans are “locked out of the job market” due to such collateral consequences, costing the economy $87 billion in gross domestic product annually—not to mention the devastating impact that such exclusions have on working families. A 2010 study found that by age 45, a man who has been released from incarceration and has reentered the labor force earns $15,600 less per year than his peers who were never incarcerated, even when controlling for work experience lost during incarceration.
Of course, background checks are used in a variety of other contexts in addition to employment. As a result, a criminal record also makes it much less likely to be accepted to college or have a rental application approved, limiting opportunity in a number of significant ways.
Due to these barriers, many of those with records will struggle to provide for themselves and their families. In such circumstances, meaningful civic engagement may not only be a low priority but also be impossible to achieve. And the harms here are likely to be compounding, as studies have found that civic engagement can actually help improve the economic outcomes of low-income families.
In addition, it is important to underscore that injustices within America’s criminal system have led those from structurally marginalized communities—including people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and those with mental health disorders—to be much more likely to have a record than other Americans. While these inequities are unacceptable for a variety of reasons, within the democracy context, they operate to further silence already underrepresented voices.
Bolstering civic participation through clean slate initiatives
Fortunately, it is possible for justice-involved individuals to escape the lingering and debilitating consequences of a criminal record. After waiting a certain amount of time and meeting various requirements, many with records can become eligible to have their records expunged, helping to mitigate the harms they pose. Yet the legal petition process that individuals must navigate to actually get those eligible records cleared is time-consuming, resource-intensive, and complex. Moreover, it is resulting in millions of records going unsealed, allowing the economic consequences—and their impact on U.S. democracy—to fester and grow.
To address this problem, states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan have begun to adopt what are known as “clean slate” laws, legislation that shifts the burden of expungement from those with records to the government, which is much better positioned to efficiently expunge records. Localities use technology to automatically clear or seal eligible records, immediately opening up economic opportunities and a world of possibilities for those with their record newly cleared. These clean slate reforms are overwhelmingly bipartisan, and while they have so far only been enacted at the state level, there is interest in federal action as well.
Across the jurisdictions that have enacted these reforms, clean slate’s effectiveness is clear. In Pennsylvania, for instance, more than 33 million eligible criminal cases and 45 million eligible criminal offenses have been sealed. To compare these results to those under the former petition process: 52 times as many misdemeanors have been sealed thanks to clean slate versus petition. Those helped by the policy include young adults who after struggling to find a path forward due their past records, have now been able to apply to college with confidence. Likewise, people of all ages have been able to secure stable employment, often for the first time in years, and even become business owners—all helping to strengthen local communities across the state.
Continued enactment of clean slate initiatives across the county will be essential to ensuring that those with records are fully able to engage in their communities. This type of participation—currently limited for far too many—is an important part of strengthening not only the individual lives of those affected but also our democracy as a whole. American society is better when all can contribute and engage within its systems. Policymakers should act now to remove needless restraints on such participation.
Maggie Jo Buchanan is the director of Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress. Nick Jacobson is a former intern for Legal Progress at the Center.