Served My Time But Still Not Free: The Legal Stigma of my Record Haunts Me | Opinion

Nearly twenty years ago, as a misguided teenager, I had a run-in with the law after participating in an act of stealing. It led me to serve time in prison, where I engaged in intensive counseling and introspection. I have turned my life around since then, dedicating myself to service that improves safety in communities through restoration. Today, I am a husband and father, a homeowner and vice president of one of the largest justice advocacy organizations in the country.

You might call me fortunate. But don't call me free. I still cannot volunteer at my child's school. I am barred from joining my homeowner's association. And there are entire sectors of the economy where I cannot work.

And I am not unique.

Today, over 70 million Americans are living with past legal records that exclude us from jobs, housing, voting rights and other common activities. A survey of people living with past legal records in California found nearly eight in ten have confronted barriers to their success as a result, even though people who have gone years with no justice system involvement are no more likely to commit a new offense than those with no previous history in the system. Many of us are several years beyond those old records and are just trying to move forward with our lives. The negative impact remains not just on us as individuals, but also on our families. And because our records never go away, they remain obstacles to our economy and public safety, hindering us all.

This is a nationwide problem that begins with the stigma that accompanies a past record. It leads employers not to hire us, landlords not to rent to us and predisposes many others to view us with permanent suspicion.

In addition, nearly 50,000 state mandates formally restrict and exclude us from things other folks take for granted, making entire sectors of the economy off limits to us, prohibiting us from participating in common civic activities like voting, and routinely excluding us from opportunities to advance our lives.

When the U.S. Small Business Administration began offering aid to business owners harmed by COVID-19 in 2020, for example, business owners with a past legal record were ineligible. What possible safety goal could that advance?

Justin Sullivan
An inmate at the Mule Creek State Prison sits on his bunk bed in a gymnasium that was modified to house prisoners August 28, 2007 in Ione, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The answer, of course, is none; closing doors to opportunity has the opposite effect, destabilizing families and communities and undermining safety. It sows the seeds of increased recidivism. It also destabilizes both individual families' and states' finances. California, which is considering legislation to sunset past convictions, loses around $20 billion per year from the impact of employment restrictions on people with past convictions.

More than 35 million American children have at least one parent whose legal history limits their ability to contribute to that child's life. In normal times, the U.S. loses $87 billion in economic activity due to the barriers associated with these old records. Now, with millions out of work because of the pandemic, people with a legal history are likely to find it even harder to achieve stability.

This is because in America, even if you do everything asked of you—serve your sentence, pay restitution and all related fees and fines, stay out of trouble and live an exemplary life—a years-old record will follow you to the grave. And even the jurisdictions that offer pathways to clearing a record do so in a such a convoluted and costly way that very few people do it.

Our federal and state governments should implement laws and policies that sunset years-old records after people have lived crime-free for a period of time. Providing actual closure of these old files would make rehabilitation, redemption and earned opportunity real. It would also unleash currently untapped resources into our economy and free millions from the instability that feeds cycles of crime and violence.

If America is sincere about opportunity, redemption and safety, the word "criminal" must no longer be used as an indelible stain.

Jay Jordan is the Vice President of Alliance for Safety and Justice, and a co-founder of its #TimeDone campaign to remove barriers to success for people living with past records.

The views in this article are the writer's own.