How effective record-sealing policy can help ex-offenders find employment and stay away from crime

How effective record-sealing policy can help ex-offenders find employment and stay away from crime

Careful sealing policies can help ex-offenders take control of their lives while protecting public safety.

Criminal records can help employers assess the risk of hiring a job applicant. If someone was convicted of a crime in the past, one may think the applicant is likely to get in trouble in the future, or worse, pose a threat to colleagues or customers. Employers are right to be cautious in making hiring decisions.

On the other hand, criminal records continue to punish people for past mistakes after they have completed their sentence and paid their debt to society. Some employers won’t take a second look at a job applicant who has to disclose a criminal record, even if he or she has reformed and would be a valuable employee. Arguably, the state shouldn’t be placing additional, lifetime burdens on offenders after they’ve successfully completed their sentences.

Criminal records are a problem for a large segment of the U.S. population. Researchers at the National Employment Law Project estimated in 2011 that 65 million adults, or nearly 21 percent of the country at the time, had some form of a criminal record. A study from Northwestern University showed that just 17 percent of white ex-offenders were contacted for interviews after applying for jobs, and only 5 percent of black ex-offenders, compared to 34 percent for whites and 14 percent for blacks without criminal records.

In other words, the state is marking certain individuals in a way that makes it difficult for them to find work, stay off welfare and support their families.

This issue is more troubling given how many new criminal laws governments have passed in recent years. While the law has historically been used only to punish offenses that cause clear harms – murder, rape, assault and theft, for example – both state and federal laws have tended to overcriminalize, creating new offenses without clear victims, such as voluntary poker games or shipping lobster tails in plastic bags. Governments have also made “crimes” out of conduct that should only be subject to subject to civil penalties, like accidental pollution.

To better balance the need to protect public safety with the need to rehabilitate offenders so they can be productive members of society, Illinois needs a sensible policy on sealing criminal records. Sealing a criminal record in Illinois means that after a waiting period as long as five years – or possibly longer in cases of sealing based on the offender’s age – only law-enforcement officers can view that record.

To get their records sealed, ex-offenders must petition a judge in the circuit that sentenced them. A judge can only grant a petition if the ex-offender can demonstrate that he has reformed and turned his life around. This system already exists for a limited number of offenses, such as marijuana possession, but should be expanded so judges can evaluate more offenders on a case-by-case basis.

House Bill 3149, passed by the Illinois General Assembly on May 26 and now awaiting the governor’s signature, helps reach a better balance. The bill lets offenders who have progressed in their education – earning a high-school, associate or bachelor’s degree, career certification, or a similar educational accolade – petition to have their records sealed.

Again, this doesn’t mean offenders are not held accountable for their actions – that was the purpose of the jail or probation time they already served.

This reform will help many people who have made mistakes find work, which is important, because having a job is one of the greatest deterrents to future criminal behavior. The better educated ex-offenders are, the more likely they are to find employment and the less likely they are to commit further crimes.

The challenge for criminal-justice reformers is to safely and cautiously limit the government’s ability to define someone by their past once they’ve already paid their debt to society. Well-thought-out expansion of sealing can help reach this goal.

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