When we send people to prison, we hope the punishment will change them and they’ll be ready to live a better life after being released. Yet too many ex-convicts of non-violent crimes don’t get a chance to properly return to society, even though they supposedly have paid their debt. The impact not only shatters the morale of reformed men and women, it harms our state’s economy and the fabric of our communities. This is a strange dichotomy. We want the punishment to fit the crime and deter others from that same behavior. But on the other hand, we want the individuals to come out and be a contributing member of society, after being rehabilitated. It’s hard to have both, creating said dichotomy.
Imagine not being able to find gainful employment. Without a living wage you can’t support your children or send them to college. You can’t save and plan for a wholesome future. You can’t take your place among colleagues and be proud of the work you do. All the middle-class virtues we would want former prison inmates to respect are out of reach for many. Does that make sense? I have witnessed something as minor as alcoholic beverage violation tickets in college follow men and women for years, making it difficult to find a career.
When employers sort through job applications they are sorting through each applicant’s past. If they don’t like what they see on a resume that includes personal history, that job hunter is discarded from the pool of potential employees. Would you hire a person who has a felony or misdemeanor on their record?
To hire someone with a blemished past is not only a big-hearted gesture. Former convicts who find employment pay taxes. Those monies add revenue to the state’s coffers while also reducing the high costs of incarceration and the revolving-door criminal justice system. All this is made clear in a 2018 study that reviewed the impact of unnecessarily excluding non-violent felons from good jobs.
The solution may be the Second Chance Act (Senate Bill 562) that is now making its way through North Carolina’s state government. The bill would make expungements automatic in certain circumstances and allow people to have some crimes expunged after exhibiting a pattern of lawful behavior. A misdemeanor or felony charge that is dismissed or disposed “not guilty” on or after December 1, 2019, will be automatically expunged.
Here are the basic rules now being proposed:
- A person may petition for expunction of (i) all nonviolent misdemeanor convictions after 5 years of good behavior.
- And (ii) all nonviolent felony convictions after 10 years of good behavior, if the person has never been convicted of an A1 misdemeanor or violent felony offense.
- A judge may deny the person relief at their discretion even if the person is eligible for relief.
The time periods defined in the bill are significant. Evidence shows that a person who is determined to remain a criminal, and is not susceptible to improving their lifestyle, will likely continue to offend within the time ranges above. So, there is no way they could expunge their records and somehow avoid the consequences of crime. But, for the ones that can, it is likely that life experience has taught them a very valuable lesson and may be just as valuable as an employee.
If Ex-Cons Can Change, Why Not Society?
Without the Second Chance Act, many decent people who have made mistakes in their youth will be deprived of contributing to society. They’ll be haunted for decades, mentally and financially, even though they served their time behind bars.
No matter the circumstances surrounding the past crime, in theory if we deprive good jobs to people who wish to lead productive lives, we risk them being lured back down the path of crime.
Recidivism is the evidence of a perpetuating cycle. It suggests that simply incarcerating people is not an effective way to change their harmful behaviors.
Society can change this unfair practice by passing a law that helps the good people who have learned their lesson. Anything less is unfair. The current laws keep pressing a thumb down on these men and women. In a sense, it forces them to serve a different kind of prison term: Unemployment.