With the adoption of recreational marijuana, the word expungement has entered our lexicon. But what does it mean and why should the business community care?
I sometimes interchange expungement with the idea of criminal forgiveness – but that isn’t entirely accurate. Criminal forgiveness refers to what happens when someone receives a pardon, and expungement refers to the process of erasing a criminal history – or sealing it from the public record.
Why should business care about expungement law? In a word, workforce. In more words, because our economy and community suffer when people are disenfranchised. Young adults sometimes make stupid mistakes that sideline them for decades. Those mistakes can bar them from education, employment and financial opportunities. If that happens, how does that person ever get to a place where they can or want to contribute to society?
Everyone knows that incarceration 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 through the 1980s, ’90s and beyond seemed like a sound platform that everyone could support – no one, not even criminals, are advocating for more crime. But the rhetoric begat policy, which begat criminal conviction that begat collateral consequences – and that turned into an expensive nightmare for our government. We now find ourselves desperate for workers in a community with high rates of low-level criminal convictions and poverty. This is not a coincidence.
So, now we find ourselves in an era of criminal justice reform – one of the few policy categories with broad bipartisan support. Expungement is one of many aspects of that reform. A fresh start gets people back in the workforce and back in the tax base. It provides pathways to education and higher skilled jobs. It helps people reenter the traditional banking system and makes the dream of homeownership, and the economic benefits that come with it, more attainable.
I think we can all agree that it is our community’s best interest to have healthy, self-sufficient individuals and families. But half of our country’s children have a parent with a criminal record. In my first semester of law school, I learned the purposes of punishment: deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, retribution and restitution. Now, many years later, as I think of the continuum of justice and why expungement matters – I think of the word redemption. It’s saving the individual, families and society.
Another positive 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 the scarlet letter for the remainder of their life, they have very little incentive to deviate from the path that led to those previous poor decisions. In most cases, they are likely to re-offend. However, if society offers that same 19-year-old a light at the end of the tunnel with that path to clearing their record, we incentivize a change in behavior that significantly reduces the likelihood of re-offending.
Hopefully, you already were, or are now convinced that expungement is good for business and good for our community. But there is a problem. The process for most expungements is expensive and complicated – and staggeringly few people are getting that fresh start. Our Missouri lawmakers vastly expanded eligibility over the past four years and their efforts are much appreciated. The Springfield Metropolitan Bar Foundation has hosted a dozen Clean Slate Clinics, with more coming up, to help people understand and access expungement. We have registered more than 2,000 individuals for those clinics and in partnership with Legal Services of Southern Missouri, many of those have access to free legal assistance. 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 effect of this criminal justice reform, we need another route, and the passage of Amendment 3 might help pave the way.
Missouri now has constitutional “automatic” expungement for certain marijuana offenses where the criminal record is erased. An early filed bill by Sen. Curtis Trent in the 2023 legislative session would greatly expand automatic expungement for nonviolent offenses. The bill has the support of a wide range of organizations from business, workforce and faith communities, and I personally will work for its passage.
Crista Hogan is executive director of the Springfield Metropolitan Bar Association and the Springfield Metropolitan Bar Foundation. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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