Clean Slate Seeks to Empower Communities by Expunging Records: “Not Just to Survive But To Live”

Millions of Americans have lost jobs due to COVID-19. For those with criminal records, it is even harder to get a job.

Not Just to Survive But To Live: Clean Slate Seeks to Empower Communities by Expunging Records
The Clean Slate initiative hopes to pass legislation that will automatically clear criminal records for those who have been crime-free and are seeking new opportunities. (Benjamin Horn/Flickr)

About $87 billion is lost in GDP every year by individuals not landing jobs due to a prior criminal record. And for the nine out of 10 employers that have background checks, applicants with a criminal record are half as likely to get a call back.

One group in particular is trying to change that: The Clean Slate initiative hopes to pass legislation that will automatically clear criminal records for those who have been crime-free and are seeking new opportunities.

“Clean Slate is about the American Dream—the belief that if you work hard, you should be able to get ahead,” the Clean Slate website states. “Those with criminal records—who have made mistakes, paid their debt to society, and now want to contribute—deserve that chance, too.”

On Tuesday, February 16, experts on criminal justice reform and policy came together to discuss a bipartisan movement to create second chances for millions of Americans. At the virtual event, Dubard McGriff, a community organizer for Clean Slate Delaware, shared his own experiences with criminal record punishments.

“I was driving a tinted car, and I had on a hoodie—I looked young and Black,” McGriff says. “All of sudden I see lights. … My car is registered to my name, and I have a criminal history … from when I was 16 years old. I am 36. That was 20 years ago.” 

The reason for his police stop? McGriff didn’t use a turning signal. “They wanted to search my car. I told them no, so they took me out of my car. I’m not anybody; I could get shot.”

Laura Johnson, director of program development at Clean Slate Oregon said, “We have seen grassroots support from people here in Oregon; it is really inspiring and reassuring. One thing we can agree on is that there is a broad support for people to reenter the community after they have completed their sentences.”

Johnson said people are excited to re-enter their lives after sentencing, but face clouds of stigma and discrimination. “That cloud doesn’t lift for them because we have a process by which we routinely label someone and measure their character by some distant moment from their past,” she said. Johnson compares these situations to emotional abuse, forcing people to relive harsh experiences of their past repeatedly.


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Right now, millions of Americans have lost jobs due to COVID-19. For those with criminal records, it is even harder to get a job. “In Texas, it is extremely hard to get any sort of clearing, even if you weren’t convicted,” said Maggie Lunca, who is leading the Clean Slate fight in Texas. “It is extremely hard to hire an attorney and get it cleared, it is more important now because I see people constantly getting denied for jobs or housing because of their past. We have so many people without jobs right now and it is causing a massive cycle of mass incarnation.”

Victor Dempsey, a community organizer for Clean Slate New York, also echoed these sentiments: “I didn’t understand that there could be employment beyond the jobs labeled for individuals with criminal records.” 

The momentum for record expungement is even gaining steam among the business community, and Celia Ouellette, the CEO of Responsible Business Initiative for Justice, believes cleaning criminal records quickly will empower economies and businesses. “Clean Slate … increases and supports the talent pipeline that is available to businesses across a wide array of industries and skill levels. … This is not just a matter of pride … but from a dollars and cents perspective, it makes sense as we rebuild our economies.”

“This is the right thing to do. It empowers people,” said Marc Levin, chief policy counsel at the Council on Criminal Justice and senior advisor to Right on Crime. “It is also an all-around interest. It is an incentive to not have further issues with the law.”

The initiative has big gains for the economy, with the goal of increasing job performance and boosting the economy by getting rid of barriers that make it close to impossible for individuals to secure employment opportunities. 

Clean Slate started in 2018, and Pennsylvania was the first state to sign on to the initiative. “Pennsylvania has become number one in the nation—the first state to provide automatic sealing of certain low-level criminal records, eliminating the complicated and often prohibitive process of seeking a court order to seal a minor record in one fell swoop,” said Gov. Tom Wolf at a 2019 press conference celebrating the one-year anniversary of signing Clean Slate. “Within a year’s time, 30 million of these records will be sealed in Pennsylvania’s court system, improving the lives of countless citizens and breaking down barriers to employment and productive lives.”

Sharon Dietrich, litigation director of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia who was influential in starting the Clean Slate initiative, said, “Not having [people’s] past follow them helps them move forward with their lives.” 

Michigan and Utah followed Pennsylvania in passing legislation to clean criminal records. Now, the support has grown to four additional states including Texas, New York, Oregon and Delaware. 

“When one in three Americans has some kind of criminal history, Clean Slate policies can make second chances a reality for millions of Americans saddled with arrest or conviction records that block their access to the basics of life—jobs, housing, education, starting a business or just participating fully in community life—injustices that are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to a Clean Slate press release.

Sheena Meade, Clean Slate Initiative’s managing director, said, “Because so many Americans have a criminal record and so many families are impacted, any economic recovering policies that lawmakers create must address the unique challenges that dozens of individuals face when trying to obtain employment, housing, and education. I know all too well the impact of not having a clean slate. Of not having housing, not because of not having money, but because of an old record.”

To learn more about the Clean Slate Initiative, visit cleanslateinitiative.org.

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About

Ashley Lynn Priore—a social entrepreneur, writer, public servant and innovative speaker—is the founder, president and CEO of Queen's Gambit, a national nonprofit using chess as a catalyst for change. Ashley is the author of Let's Learn Chess! and is currently completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Pittsburgh.