Anyone over a certain age recalls being told that a bad act would go down on your permanent record.
It turns out that this threat of everlasting, unshakable taint may be subject to some wiggle room. A movement to expunge or hide aspects of a person’s criminal past is gathering steam in Missouri and other states. It’s part of an effort to help former inmates find employment after release from prison.
“What offenders who are re-entering society are asking for is an equal opportunity,” said Suzanne Kissock, chair and program director of the legal studies program at Missouri Western State University. “Should a conviction stay with you, if it is a nonviolent offense, for the rest of your life?”
Two decades ago, politicians would have given a strong “yes” when asked that question. That consensus is starting to erode as Republicans seek to reduce prison costs and some Democrats see the issue as one of fairness for those who paid a debt to society.
Missouri lawmakers gave bipartisan support this year to a bill that allows four crimes to be expunged from a person’s record: first-degree property damage, stealing, possession of forging instruments and fraudulent use of a credit or debit device. The measure, which covers offenses that are common for people with drug addictions, became law in late August.
A clean slate makes it easier for non-violent offenders to find jobs after release from prison, said Jeanette Mott Oxford, executive director of a social justice organization called Empower Missouri. Even with low unemployment, former prisoners often struggle to find work.
“It can certainly make you think, ‘What use is it to keep trying?’” she said. “If you can’t get a job or stable housing, the chances that you will make a future mistake will increase.”
The stakes are high because Missouri expects to release about 925 non-violent offenders in the next four years under a new sentencing law. Buchanan County already has 1,038 adults under some form of Department of Corrections supervision, either probation or a combination of probation and parole.
To help these former inmates land job interviews, Missouri and other states adopted “ban-the-box” policies that prevent employers from asking about a criminal record on an initial job application. In Missouri, ban the box only applies to some state jobs, but Kansas City adopted its own measure for all private businesses with six or more employees.
Robert Hingula, corporate council with the Polsinelli Law Firm’s labor and employment group, said ban the box still allows an employer to conduct a background check after a conditional job offer. If an issue comes up, an employer will consider whether an offense is applicable to a job — such as a DUI for a driver — and how long ago it happened.
Hingula said he doesn’t see major problems from ban the box, although complete expungement of certain offenses could prove more troubling. “Taking that choice away puts employers in a little bit of danger,” he said. “I think we will find most of those concerns kind of even themselves out.”
Oxford believes the taxpaying public stands to gain if expungement and what she calls “fair-chance hiring” helps former prisoners find employment and avoid repeat offenses.
“It’s understandable that employers don’t want to take risks,” Oxford said. “But if you’re not going to interview anyone who’s been in prison, what do those folks do?”