With the adoption of recreational marijuana, the word expungement entered our lexicon. But what does this mean and why should the business community be concerned?
Sometimes I mistake erasure for the idea of criminal forgiveness – but that’s not entirely true. A crime pardon refers to what happens when someone is pardoned, and an expungement refers to the process of erasing a criminal record – or sealing it from the public record.
Why should a business care about erasure law? In a word, workforce. In other words, because our economy and community suffer when people are disenfranchised. Young adults sometimes make stupid mistakes that keep them on the sidelines for decades. These mistakes can hinder them in education, employment and financial opportunities. If that happens, how can that person ever get to a place where they can or want to contribute to society?
Everyone knows that prison is expensive, but the effect of a criminal record is even more expensive. The “lock ’em up and throw away the key” theme that dominated political rhetoric throughout the 1980s, ’90s, and beyond seemed like a good platform for anyone to support—no one, not even criminals, is advocating more crime. But rhetoric begat politics, which begat criminal convictions which begat collateral consequences – and that turned into an expensive nightmare for our government. We now desperately want workers in a community with high rates of low criminal convictions and poverty. This is not a coincidence.
So we are now in an era of criminal justice reform—one of the few policy categories with broad bipartisan support. Deletion is one of the many aspects of that reform. A fresh start puts people back into the workforce and into the tax base. It provides pathways to education and highly qualified jobs. It helps people re-enter the traditional banking system and makes the dream of home ownership and the economic benefits that come with it more attainable.
I think we can all agree that it is in the best interest of our community to have healthy, self-sufficient individuals and families. But half of the children in our country have parents with a criminal record. In my first semester of law school, I learned the purpose of punishment: deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, retribution, and restitution. Now, many years later, as I think about the continuum of justice and why erasure is important – I think about the word redemption. It saves individuals, families and society.
Another positive side of expungement is that it reduces recidivism and increases public safety. If you tell a young person convicted of a crime that they are marked with a scarlet letter for the rest of their lives, they have very little incentive to deviate from the path that led to those previous bad decisions. In most cases, they are likely to repeat the offence. However, if society offers that same 19-year-old a light at the end of the tunnel with that path to expungement, we encourage behavior change that significantly reduces the likelihood of re-offending.
Hopefully you have already been or are now convinced that deletion is good for business and good for our community. But there is a problem. The process for most deletions is expensive and complicated – and surprisingly few people start over. Our Missouri legislators have greatly expanded the right to participate over the past four years, and their efforts are appreciated. The Springfield Metropolitan Bar Foundation has hosted a dozen Clean Slate Clinics, with more coming soon, to help people understand and approach wiping. We have registered more than 2,000 individuals for these clinics and in partnership with Legal Services of Southern Missouri, many of them have access to free legal aid. Unfortunately, of the tens of thousands of Greene County residents eligible under that statute, only 216 people have had their records expunged as of September 2022. If we want to feel the impact of this criminal justice reform, we need another road, and passage of Amendment 3 could help pave the way.
Missouri now has a constitutional “automatic” expungement for certain marijuana offenses where the criminal record is expunged. A bill filed early in the 2023 legislative session by Sen. Curtis Trent would greatly expand automatic expungement for nonviolent felonies. The bill has the support of a wide range of organizations from the business, labor and religious communities, and I will personally work for its adoption.
Crista Hogan is the executive director of the Springfield Metropolitan Bar Association and the Springfield Metropolitan Bar Foundation. You can reach her at [email protected]