Most people agree with the maxim that if you do the crime, you should be required to do the time. But should doing that time translate into what is essentially a life sentence for non-violent offenses? Many people find it difficult to find housing or get a job due to having a record. Many former convicts return to a life of crime as a result, as they have no other way to support themselves. Two bills introduced in DC would allow for a greater number of people to have their records sealed or expunged. But does this raise public safety concerns?
The Recidivism Problem
Recidivism refers to a person relapsing into criminal behavior once released. The national statistics on recidivism are grim. Roughly two thirds of all prisoners released are rearrested within three years. More than half of those who end up being rearrested are rearrested during the first year of release. By the end of five years, over 76% of offenders end up being rearrested. Clearly, our current prison system focuses primarily on removing the criminal from society without properly rehabilitating them to return to society.
The Problems Begin at the Moment a Prisoner Is Released
Understandably, most of those incarcerated count down to their release date. But often, inmates find themselves alone in the world with no, or little means to support themselves. In a perfect world, each released prisoner would leave in the company of a family member, their basic needs of food and shelter met. But this is rarely the case. Roughly one third of those released have no money, no means of transportation, and nowhere to go upon release. The ease off committing a small crime to get some money to get by is too great a temptation for many.
The Struggle to Stay on the Straight and Narrow
Think about the last job application you filled out. Most, if not all, ask if the individual has ever been convicted of a crime outside of a minor traffic offense. While most applications contain a disclaimer that a previous offense is not an absolute bar to employment, in the vast majority of cases, no job offer follows unless the applicant lies. Society insists those released find work, but this is often impossible. In desperation, many have no choice but to return to a life of crime to survive.
The Proposed Legislation in DC to Address This Issue
Mayor Muriel Bowser has proposed legislation that would make it easier for those released to have their arrest and conviction records sealed. When a criminal record is sealed, it remains on the record. However, it is only available to law enforcement and government, not employers. Council member David Grosso goes one step further, by proposing legislation that would fully expunge the records of those arrested but not prosecuted, or prosecuted, but not convicted. Expunging a record clears it from public records entirely.
How the Proposed Measure Would Help
Both Bowser and Grosso’s legislation would make it far easier for those previously arrested and convicted to reenter society by securing employment. Should the proposed legislation be enacted, former convicts could safely answer no to the question regarding their criminal record without fear of the job offer being revoked once their record is discovered. Since property crimes, often originally committed due to economic insecurity, have the highest rate of recidivism, proponents of the measure argue that streamlining the records sealing process will lead to less crime.
Would the Measures Create a Risk to Employers?
Opponents of the proposed measures argue that sealing or expunging the records of those convicted could potentially lead to more crime, not less. The measures have some business owners concerned, and for logical reason. For example, if a former convict is offered a position in which they will be handling company money, even operating a cash register, would they not be more likely to steal again? The fear among employers is that they may potentially hire a former convict unknowingly, and suffer economic loss as a result.
Would the Measures Create a Risk to Society?
Others opposed to the measures state that sealing or expunging more records could pose a serious public safety risk. Many people who commit acts of domestic violence, for example, are offered deferred prosecution, which, if the offender completes requisite counseling and pays a fine, they are not prosecuted. Under Grosso’s proposal, these records would be automatically expunged. This, they argue, could leave innocent women and children at risk, as any subsequent arrest for DV would be treated as a first time offense, not part of a continued pattern.
The Bottom Line
Our current recidivism rates leave no question that the current system needs improvement. However, the needs of those prisoners released into society must be balanced against the safety needs of the public. Both proposed measures specify crimes for which sealing or expunging records would not be available. However, further input from victim’s advocacy groups and prisoner’s advocacy groups alike are probably needed before a solution that will best work for all parties can be determined.