First Step, Second Chances

The momentous criminal justice bill passed last year, the First Step Act, is already bearing fruit. Thousands of nonviolent offenders tried under federal laws and sentenced to obscenely long sentences with no chance of parole are closer to breathing free air again. Earlier this year, more than 2,200 federal prison inmates were released and many more have had their sentences significantly reduced.

Sadly, these ex-offenders face an uphill struggle to reintegrate into society and make an honest living. Neither taxpayers’ pocketbooks nor public safety will benefit in the long term if released prisoners are led back to a life of crime because their past bars them from employment or housing. That’s exactly why last year’s bill had the name it did – it was only a first step. Congress must now move from first steps to second chances.

A multitude of studies have shown that recidivism rates drop sharply when ex-offenders are able to get steady employment upon release. Yet employers are understandably reluctant to take on employees whom they perceive as high-risk. Job applicants with a criminal record are as much as 50 percent less likely to receive a call back from prospective employers, and a Prison Policy Initiative report found that the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated individuals is more than five times higher than the national average. In addition, ex-offenders often face difficulties getting occupational licenses, which have become increasingly necessary for legal employment even among many low-skilled trades.

One of the surest ways to help low-level ex-offenders succeed on their own merits, then, is to take the proverbial monkey off their back completely, by allowing them to have their criminal records expunged. A bill to allow this already exists in the form of the Clean Slate Act (H.R. 2348), which allows nonviolent offenders to petition to have their federal criminal records sealed after a year of being released, if they have committed no new offenses. Utah and Pennsylvania have each passed versions of the Clean Slate Act in 2019, and more states are looking to follow suit.

Serving a prison sentence is supposed to act as a measure of a debt being paid for wrongs committed; that sentence, once served, should mean an end to punishment. Allowing reformed nonviolent offenders to clean their slate not only provides an incentive to keep on the straight and narrow path, but restores the dignity of truly being an equal and accepted participant in society.

Another small step to take at the federal level would be to establish fair chance hiring for all government jobs and contracts. This would entail delaying questions about prior convictions until after the initial stages of the hiring process for most government jobs, so that hiring managers weigh applicants based on their merits first before factoring in their criminal past. Federal fair chance hiring legislation enjoys bipartisan support in both the Senate and the House, in the form of the Fair Chance Act, S. 387 and H.R. 1076.

Both record expungement and fair chance hiring have had a proven positive effect when implemented at the state level. A recent Michigan Law study showed that ex-offenders who had their records expunged “experience a sharp upturn in their wage and employment trajectories,” while their recidivism rates are extremely low. Meanwhile, high crime neighborhoods in localities that enacted fair chance hiring reforms saw a 4 percent increase in employment.

As productively employed ex-offenders reap the benefits of their full reentry into economic opportunity, so too does the rest of the population. A study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research estimated that barriers to former prisoners re-entering the workforce reduced our GDP by $78 to $87 billion. Of course, not only does having these people back in the workforce benefit our economy directly, it also has the added benefit of eliminating the taxpayer burden of their incarceration, which costs, on average, more than $36,000 per prisoner per year, as of 2017.

Reducing barriers to re-entry is an easy win for everyone involved, and a necessary component for the First Step Act to achieve second chances and long-lasting success.