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Congress has chance to wipe the slate clean for formerly convicted. They should take it.

Bipartisan support in Congress is rare. But members on both sides of the aisle support criminal justice reform that gives second chances.

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A third of American adults have an arrest or criminal record of some kind. Regardless of the nature of the charge or its disposition in court, that record can be like a scarlet R, haunting people for life as they seek jobs, an apartment or admission to college. Any boss or landlord conducting a background check can see the public record, assume the worst and decline to take a risk.

Many Americans are eligible to have their criminal records sealed or expunged, lowering barriers to rehabilitation and the odds of recidivism. Sadly, that rarely happens. Most are either unaware of their right to petition for relief or deterred by the cost and complexity of the process. A University of Michigan study found that less than 7% of people who can get their records expunged do so within five years after they qualify. 

One solution is to legislate “clean slate” policies – the automatic sealing of some lower-level criminal records. This approach is the keystone of a recommendation by a task force convened by the Council on Criminal Justice. As chairman of that panel, I believe strongly that adoption of this measure – along with several other recommendations we've made – will significantly advance the fairness and effectiveness of our federal criminal justice system.

Our Task Force on Federal Priorities outlined three steps to help free people of the enduring and harmful stigma of criminal records. Congress should do the following:

►Act to have public records automatically sealed for low-level, nonviolent federal convictions such as simple drug possession. This should happen only after a conviction-free period of seven years or less. Also, federal arrests that result in acquittals (or no charges) should be sealed in six months or less. Police, courts and other criminal justice agencies would still have records access.

►Pass legislation that allows people convicted of more serious federal offenses to petition to have records sealed – as long as they, too, are free of other convictions for the same period of time. Records would still be available to criminal justice agencies.

►Set aside money for grants to help states establish their own automatic record-sealing policies. Most convictions occur at the state level, and most criminal records are state records. Providing funding will encourage states to embrace these important reforms.

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Congress has begun moving toward achieving the first two steps, through bipartisan legislation introduced in both the Senate and the House. Known as the Clean Slate Act, the legislation would permit the automatic sealing of records for those convicted of low-level, nonviolent drug crimes after they have served their sentences and and seal the record of arrestees who were not convicted. The act would also create a procedure allowing people convicted of other nonviolent offenses to petition a federal judge, seeking a review and record sealing.

The Clean Slate Act is “commonsense criminal justice reform" that offers "a second chance to millions,” says Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican who introduced the bill in the Senate along with Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat. The senators rightly note that getting those people back in the workforce will help fuel the American economy as it recovers from the lockdowns and business closures triggered by COVID-19.

For individuals and their families, the impacts of clean-slate legislation would be profound. The Michigan study found that wages go up by more than 20% just a year after records are cleared.

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As a member of Congress and especially as governor of Georgia for eight years, I witnessed firsthand the power of our criminal justice system to change lives – and not always for the better. Automatically sealing criminal records is a crucial tool to help individuals move forward.

Let’s give people a true second chance – and watch them thrive.

Nathan Deal served as governor of Georgia and a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives. A member of the Council on Criminal Justice, he chaired the council’s Task Force on Federal Priorities.

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