Editorial: The lingering damage of an old criminal record

Published: 03-09-2019 10:10 PM

Before he became a country music superstar, singer and songwriter Chris Stapleton was in a bluegrass band called The SteelDrivers. Several songs on their first two albums involved young men interacting, not happily, with the criminal justice system. Midnight Train to Memphis begins at the sentencing phase:

“Judge looked down gave me 40 days,

instead of the fine that I could not pay.

Said, ‘Walk right you’ll soon be home.

Cross the line you’ll be on your own.’ ”

And that’s how it’s supposed to work, at least in the case of misdemeanors and nonviolent offenses. A transgression is committed, the legal system deals with the transgressor, the debt to society is paid and the transgressor returns home, ideally a better person, or at least wiser one, for the experience.

In too many cases, however, these old criminal records cast indelible shadows. Long after they have completed their sentence, people who’ve had a brush with the law find their old records continue to inflict damage on their lives — even when they have stayed out of trouble for years. Because employers, landlords and even school officials now have easy access to old information, a record for a low-level offense has become a modern-day scarlet letter — one worn by between 70 million and 100 million Americans, according to the Center for American Progress, a liberal public policy research and advocacy organization.

The implications are huge: A criminal history makes it much more difficult get a job, rent an apartment, access social services or get a student loan. These “collateral consequences” also include difficulty earning professional licenses or serving in the military. And they can interfere with parental rights and prevent people from traveling or volunteering in their communities. On the national level, the loss of employment opportunities for people with criminal records put a $65 billion drag on the country’s gross domestic product, according to a 2014 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

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“No judge sentenced them to this sort of lifetime of ongoing marginalization, but they’re experiencing it every day,” Mairead O’Reilly, an attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, told Valley News correspondent Adam Boffey last month at a clinic in White River Junction designed to help people clear their criminal records, a process known as expungement. (A phone-based expungement clinic will be held on March 29. Call 802-424-4701 in advance to sign up.)

It’s important to make clear that records eligible for expungement do not include most felony offenses or violent or sex-related offenses. Most federal convictions also are not eligible, nor are traffic-related misdemeanors, such as DUIs. But records for cases that were dismissed because the defendant was acquitted or the charges were dropped are eligible, as are records of most misdemeanor and some nonviolent felony convictions — provided five years have elapsed since the sentence was completed and all restitution was paid.

It’s important to note, too, that when America embarked on its “war on crime” and mass incarceration campaign in the 1980s, people of color became much more likely to be arrested, especially for lesser drug offenses. They are therefore more likely to be haunted by an economically and socially debilitating criminal record.

Fortunately, the country appears to be making some progress on this front. In addition to expungement clinics, court diversion and restorative justice programs are growing in popularity. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has been working since 2012 to provide policy recommendations to decrease the chances that a minor mistake becomes a life sentence. The “ban-the-box” movement aims to get employers to delay questions about a prospective employee’s criminal history to avoid bias in the hiring process, and in November, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved amending the state’s constitution to restore voting rights to citizens with past felony convictions.

Millions of Americans have made the kinds of mistakes that leave them branded with criminal records. But if America truly is the land of second chances, after these people have paid their debt — after they have served their “Forty days of shotguns and barbed wire fences,” and had “forty nights to sit and listen to the midnight train to Memphis” — they deserve to be restored to full citizenship.