Once a person has served their sentence, they need to be able to move on. Criminal records can negatively affect voting rights, employment opportunities, along with in a variety of other aspects of people's day to day lives. When people released from jail or prison are unable to reintegrate into society, they're more likely to recidivate, that is, to commit a new crime. Some of the ways expungement can affect a person's life include:
In several states people who have been convicted of felonies are permanently barred from voting. However, in most states, voting rights are either unaffected by criminal records, only barred during the sentence, or are restored upon expungement of the record.
Although the majority of people with criminal records can vote, many are not aware of this. Many states not only don't provide resources to find out if you can vote or not and often they actively discourage people from spreading information about voting rights for those with criminal records. In Colorado for example, members of organizations that provide information on voting rights can be charged with a felony if they make a mistake and accidentally inform somebody incorrectly. Although the Colorado rules on who can vote seem simple at first glance, but become more nuanced with circumstances involving home detention, revocation hearings, and non-residential diversion.
Voting restrictions are complicated, so we’re working on creating a fully-vetted online resource called CanIvote to allow people with criminal records to find if they are eligible to vote. We value the resources such as the above linked page provided by the ACLU, but want to do more than give a general overview of voting laws. With our resource, people with criminal records will be able to determine their voting eligibility in a handful of clicks.
Currently, we are focusing on expanding CanIexpunge in more states and later hope to offer services to further assist with information about voting rights and voting rights restoration.
People with criminal records are consistently discriminated against when seeking employment. Often, employers will ask if potential employees have ever been convicted of a crime. Imagine being arrested for having a small amount of cannabis in college and having to potentially disclose that to employers for the rest of your life. Checking that box, that yes, you have been convicted of a crime, can often end with an application in the trash without a second thought. Some states, and in some places, federal institutions, have passed "ban the box" legislation, which is a step in the right direction, like expungement. However, explaining a significant gap in employment history caused by time incarcerated can prove to be a serious barrier to gaining employment.
When people who have been convicted of a crime are released from prison are unable to access steady employment, they are more likely to recidivate. That is, they are more likely to commit a new crime, often times out of necessity to survive. Without implementing better support services for people who have been incarcerated, we set them up for failure. This is one of the reasons why the US has a 76.6% rearrest rate within 5 years of a person being released from jail or prison. Our revolving door prison system needs to focus on rehabilitation and reentry success. CanIexpunge is our attempt to ameliorate some of the harms of this broken system.
Lacking employment opportunities for people with criminal convictions has severe racial implications, since people of color are consistently arrested at higher rates, even when crime rates are controlled for (read our write up about mass incarceration that details disproportionate arrest rates here). Neighborhoods with high arrest rates often are left with few employable adult men. Oftentimes, the difference in arrest rates isn't attributable to crime rates, but rather policing strategies. Unconstitutional tactics like stop and frisk and neighborhood sweeps have often led to million-dollar blocks, where taxpayers have spent over a million dollars to incarcerate people who once lived there.
All of this stacks on top of other racial discrimination in employment opportunities. In a 2014 study, it was found that white men with criminal records are more likely to get a call back on a job application than black men with no criminal record and a similar application.
Colleges have similar boxes on their applications, however several states have banned the box. Furthermore, some people with criminal convictions are barred from accessing student loan and other federal financial aid opportunities. Preventing people with criminal records from going to college prevents people from breaking out of cycles of poverty and violence.
Our three former presidents, Obama, Bush, and Clinton, all admit that they have used illicit drugs. If they had been caught and kicked out of college or barred from getting a college degree, how would our country look differently? However, they weren't caught. This isn't just down to luck or them being better at covering up their criminal proclivities. All of them came from relatively wealthy families. People in wealthy neighborhoods aren't subject to the same policing and targeting by police as people in poor neighborhoods of people of color. We are systematically disenfranchising and preventing hundreds of thousands of people from accessing higher education, causing cycles of poverty and crime, and damaging economic mobility for people born into poverty.
People with criminal convictions are frequently barred from housing, both with private and public organizations. Housing organizations often do background checks or ask people to disclose criminal records. Government subsidized housing program often bar some people with felony convictions from living at them.
How Expungement Fits Into This
Expungement ameliorates all of these damaging aspects of a criminal record and more. This is why we do this work. However, we can't do this alone. Legal professionals, programmers, and designers will all be needed to expand our services. Once the service is online, it will need to be advertised and kept up to date. These things cost money. If you are able to donate, please see our donation page.
We also truly need reforms to our system of mass incarceration. For more information on CanIexpunge's policy goals, see our policy page. We also are planning on expanding services into voting rights, for more information on that, see our page on CanIvote. Finally, the statistics we've shared here today only tell half the story. The other half is the lived experiences of the many people who have served time in prison, and continue to serve time in prison. For more information on our work to get those stories to the general public, see our page on advocacy.