The Clean Slate Initiative works to advance automated record clearance

We are pleased to publish a description of the Clean Slate Initiative we invited from its newly installed Managing Director.

The Clean Slate Initiative: Working to Ensure A Criminal Record is Not a Life Sentence to Poverty

By Sheena Meade*

As our nation responds to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is an imperative that lawmakers enact policies that include the tens of millions of justice-involved people and their families— already facing economic vulnerability from the stigma of a criminal record. One in three Americans, 70 million people, have some type of criminal record, and these records can create lifelong barriers to opportunity for them and their families. 

Nearly 9 in 10 employers, 4 in 5 landlords, and 3 in 5 colleges are now using background checks. Any record—no matter how old or minor—can put employment, housing, education, and other basics permanently out of reach. 

This harm is generational: Nearly half of children have at least one parent with a criminal record, resulting in difficulty for their parents to secure stable employment, economic stability and housing — all of which lead to less educational opportunities and hindered cognitive development. 

While most states allow people to petition for expungement or sealing of at least certain types of records, due to the cumbersome and complicated petition-based system used in most states, only a tiny fraction of people eligible for expungement or sealing ever obtain the relief they need. Navigating the complex record-clearing process can prove extremely challenging, often requiring expensive legal assistance and court fees—making it impossible for millions to move on with their lives.

As a national bipartisan coalition, the Clean Slate Initiative is working to fix this broken system in states across the country by advancing policies to automatically clear eligible criminal records. By sealing or expunging certain records after an individual remains crime free for a period of time we can remove these barriers, get people back to work and open the door to opportunity for them and their family. 

Over the next two years, the Clean Slate Initiative is working with state partners in over a dozen states to launch legislative efforts to automate record clearing, expand eligibility and support implementation. 

We’ve already seen the success of clean slate legislation in Pennsylvania. In just one year of implementation in Pennsylvania, nearly 35 million cases and 47.3 million offenses have been sealed from public view — helping more than 1.15 million Pennsylvanians get relief. And now, Pennsylvania is moving to expand its clean slate legislation to include more individuals and eliminate barriers to expungement. Utah passed a similar Clean Slate bill and is in the process of implementing the new law. 

Now, we’re working with state partners in Michigan, North Carolina, New York, Washington, Louisiana, Connecticut and more to expand the bipartisan movement for automated record expungement growing across the country. This movement has grown into national momentum for Congress to hear a bipartisan proposal for sealing criminal records at the federal level. 

Clean slate policies give millions of individuals who have earned a second chance the opportunity to better their lives and meaningfully contribute to their communities. Particularly in a time with unique challenges for our society and economy during a pandemic, we must consider the disproportionate economic vulnerability of justice-involved people and ensure the stigma that comes with a record is not a life sentence to poverty. 

*Sheena Meade transforms pain into purpose and power. Prior to joining the Clean Slate Initiative as its first Managing Director, Sheena served in a variety of leadership roles focused on building long-term, sustainable change for communities. Most recently, Sheena served as a Criminal Justice Program Officer at Galaxy Gives, a philanthropic investment organization, where she advised grantees and helped develop and lead a Criminal Justice Fellowship program to help grantees hone professional skills to build stronger, more impactful organizations.