As Women’s Incarceration Rates Rise, Advocates Say Clean Slate Legislation Is Needed

Over 18 million women in the U.S. now bear the weight of a criminal record. What support exists to help them rebuild their lives?

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Today, women make up a larger portion of the prison population than ever before. With 190,600 women currently behind bars, incarceration rates are rising twice as fast as men’s. Despite this dramatic increase, the reentry needs of formerly incarcerated women remain largely unaddressed. What support exists to help them rebuild their lives?

The scarlet letter of conviction

Convictions act as a scarlet letter, especially for women. Over 27 percent of formerly convicted people in the U.S. are unemployed, according to a Prison Policy Initiative report—a rate higher than during the peak of the Great Depression. Background checks by employers and colleges lead to rampant discrimination, making it nearly impossible for these women to move forward.

This discrimination extends to basic survival needs. Many formerly incarcerated women are mothers and primary caretakers, yet their convictions often make them ineligible for government assistance, including food and cash benefits. This leaves them fighting to provide for their children while trying to secure employment.

Occupational licenses present another significant barrier. Jobs commonly held by women, such as nursing, home health aide and cosmetology, require these licenses. However, convictions or arrests often prevent them from obtaining the necessary certifications, regardless of the relevance of their offenses to their professions.

Housing is another critical issue:

  • Homelessness and unstable housing are the most pressing issues for women in the NYC justice system, per a 2017 report from the Prisoner Reentry Institute.
  • Of 152 formerly incarcerated women surveyed, 75 percent had experienced homelessness, with 41 percent currently homeless, a 2006 California study found.
  • Women without safe housing often return to abusive partners or family situations just to have a roof over their heads, according to interviews with paroled women.

Racial inequities in incarceration

The criminal justice system disproportionately targets women and girls of color. Black and Native American girls are significantly more likely to end up in jail compared to their Asian, white, and Latinx peers. Black girls are over three times as likely, and Native American girls are over four times as likely, to be incarcerated as white girls. This disparity continues into adulthood, with Black and Native American women disproportionately represented in prisons.

The broader impact is staggering. Black Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population but a whopping 38 percent of the prison population, facing not only overrepresentation behind bars but also the enduring stigma and practical consequences of a felony record.

“If your crime was being poor like mine, you’re never gonna be able to afford an attorney to get your record cleared.”

Sheena Meade, CEO, Clean Slate Initiative

A personal battle with the system

Holding a criminal record creates significant barriers in employment, education and housing, perpetuating poverty and hardship. Nearly all 50 states have laws allowing people to clear their records after staying crime-free for a set period, which could eliminate these obstacles to reentering society.

However, the process of getting a record expunged is laden with paperwork and expensive legal fees, which many cannot afford. Some are unaware that record clearing is even an option. Costs to hire an attorney to expunge a record vary widely, ranging anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $10,000, and even if you attempt to do it yourself, it can cost anywhere from $100 to $600. This financial burden is insurmountable for many, particularly for those whose initial crime was driven by economic hardship.

Sheena Meade, CEO of the Clean Slate Initiative, articulated this struggle. “If your crime was being poor like mine, you’re never gonna be able to afford an attorney to get your record cleared,” she told Ms.

Arrested for a bounced check in 2004 as a newly single mother, her conviction led to significant barriers to reentering society, despite paying the check back. “My true sentence had just begun,” she said.

The stigma of a criminal record extends beyond economic and legal challenges, permeating social interactions and personal relationships. Meade recounted numerous barriers as a mother, such as when she wanted to chaperone her son’s school trip to SeaWorld.

“The application asked if I had ever been arrested or had a conviction. I was met with a lot of red tape just to engage with my child. I checked the box, saw all the red letters pop up on the screen, and then unchecked the box. I decided not to go through with it because I worried about the stigma it might cause for my child,” Meade said.

‘Clean slate’ laws: A fresh start

Clean slate laws offer a solution by automatically clearing criminal records after a set crime-free period, removing the need for expensive and complicated legal processes. The Clean Slate Initiative, spearheaded by Meade, is a national bipartisan organization working to pass legislation that automates the record-clearing process. They collaborate with a diverse coalition of grassroots groups, policy organizations and businesses.

Clean slate laws could dramatically change the lives of women with criminal records. They provide a fresh start, opening doors to employment, housing and education. Research from the Harvard Law Review also found that people who have their records expunged experience a 25 percent increase in wages within two years.

“It unlocks those opportunities for these mothers, for these daughters, for these young workers who want to get back in the workforce or maybe want to find safe housing,” said Meade.

The impact of these laws extends beyond individual women. Families, communities and the economy benefit when women are given a fair chance to rebuild their lives. With reduced recidivism rates and increased economic participation, clean slate legislation represents a powerful step towards breaking the cycle of poverty and incarceration.

“I understand the pain, the pain and the tribulations that come with having a record or the barriers that come with it. And so at the end of the day, I am someone who’s living this burden, someone who still does not have a clean slate to this day in the state of Florida,” she said. “It’s not just a bipartisan issue. It is a people’s issue—people over politics.”

As women’s incarceration rates continue to climb, the call for comprehensive solutions like clean slate legislation grows louder. A criminal record can shackle someone for life, blocking economic security and mobility. Incarcerated women greatly benefit from policies that provide a genuine second chance. Clean slate legislation isn’t just about justice—it’s about allowing women to safely and effectively rebuild their lives.

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Wakaba Oto is an editorial intern at Ms. and is completing her undergraduate degree in English and journalism at Fordham University. She is passionate about investigative journalism, with a focus on uncovering misconduct in government and corporate sectors. She has roots in Amsterdam and Tokyo.