Matthew T. Mangino
March 25, 2017
There is an often repeated maxim in the American criminal justice system relating to punishment, "He paid his debt to society." That maxim is obsolete. Why? A man or woman who has been convicted of a crime carries that debt forever — figuratively and, in many instances, literally.
In Pennsylvania, the bipartisan "Clean Slate" bill would automatically seal the record of an offender after staying crime-free for 10 years with the intent of making it easier for people convicted of nonviolent misdemeanors to find jobs and housing. The bill is the first of its kind in the nation, reported the Buck County Courier-Times.
While the bill is admirable it does not go far enough. To make a real impact on recidivism, a bill in Pennsylvania, or any other state, must include all criminal offenses, not just nonviolent offenses.
In 2009, Alfred Blumstein and Kiminori Nakamura of Carnegie Mellon University wrote in "Redemption in the Presence of Widespread Criminal Background Checks," that there comes a time after a period of crime-free behavior that an ex-offender is no more likely to commit a crime than the general population.
Their analysis was based on a statistical concept called the "hazard rate." The hazard rate is the probability, over time, that someone who has stayed crime-free will be rearrested. For a person who has been arrested in the past, the hazard rate declines the longer the former offender remains crime-free.
The study examined the hazard rate for 18-year-olds when they were arrested for a first offense of one of three crimes — robbery, burglary and aggravated assault. For robbery, the hazard rate declined to the same arrest rate for the general population of same-aged individuals at age 25.7, or 7.7 years after the robbery arrest. After that point, the probability that the former offender would commit another crime was less than the probability of other same-aged individuals in the general population.
Ten years crime-free should entitle an offender, violent or nonviolent, to sweep the slate clean. Leaving an individual's criminal record intact long after he or she remains no more of a threat than anyone else, is simply nonsense.
Easy access to criminal records has increased the stigma of crime, creating formal disabilities — disenfranchisement, housing restrictions, government entitlement ineligibility, statutory employment prohibitions and even deportation.
This is a big deal. An estimated 65 million U.S. adults have criminal records and they often confront barriers that prevent even the most qualified from securing employment, according to the National Employment Law Project. A single criminal conviction should not tarnish a life otherwise spent abiding the law.
The public appears ready to look at alternatives. According to Public Opinion Strategies, a polling company, 87 percent of voters in Philadelphia suburbs said they believe the state "should break down barriers" to help offenders get out from under their perpetual debt to society.
The actual financial debt that comes with a conviction comes in two forms, both equally devastating. First, the costs associated with fines, court costs, administration fees and supervision fees. Former offenders may be saddled with big fines, and state surcharges which may be difficult, or impossible, to pay. Those costs may be around long after a sentence is served.
Those fees begin to add up — the offender falls behind and ends up in jail for failure to pay. The offender loses her job, again, and the process starts all over — a form of indentured servitude.
Second, a criminal record makes it difficult to get a job, public assistance, college loans, public housing, professional licensing and a host of other collateral consequences of a criminal conviction. The financial consequences are obvious and failure is inevitable.
A criminal conviction shouldn't have a lifetime of consequences.
— Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner's Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him atwww.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino
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