Bill Would Give ‘Clean Slate’ to Nonviolent Offenders

Convicted offenders are expected to seamlessly integrate into society after their sentence, but without the proper tools we are setting them up to fail. For so long, the United States has focused on maligning and judging offenders for past actions instead of helping to address the barriers to reintegration.

The newly introduced Clean Slate Act hopes to ease some of these barriers. The bill would automatically seal federal criminal records for offenders convicted of nonviolent drug crimes. Additionally, it would make it easier for offenders to petition the courts to seal records for other qualifying nonviolent offenses.

Background checks are a common practice for employers, colleges and landlords. Nearly 9 in 10 employers use criminal background checks, according to the Center for American Progress. And students convicted of drug crimes while in school are restricted from receiving federal financial aid. So by sealing offenders’ criminal records, the Clean Slate Act would help bridge the gap between offenders and much-needed resources, such as employment, education, housing and social capital.

Studies have shown that access to education and employment are two of the most important factors for successful re-entry into society. Yet formerly incarcerated people are often less educated and less likely to be employed.

The unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people is 27%. That’s over seven times higher than the March 2019 unemployment rate of 3.8% — and even higher than the unemployment rate during the Great Depression. Without access to employment, formerly incarcerated people are at risk of becoming homeless, where they are more likely to encounter police and get arrested again.

The targets of the Clean Slate Act are nonviolent offenders. Many have been convicted for offenses involving marijuana — a drug that is currently legal for recreational use in 10 states. These crimes should not come with a lifetime sentence of hardship.

Drug crimes also disproportionately affect people of color who already face difficulties gaining access to employment, education and housing due to discrimination. Black and white people are estimated to use drugs at similar rates, yet black people are imprisoned for drug crimes almost six times more than white people, according to the NAACP.

Mass incarceration for drug crimes was fueled by the War on Drugs — a disastrous campaign to increase criminalization for drug crimes beginning in the 1970s and a sentiment that still exists in politics today. Roughly 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United States, with almost 500,000 being for drug crimes. The United States locks up more people per capita than any other country.

Although we cannot erase the years of damage from the War on Drugs, sealing criminal records is a small step toward mending the wrongs of these harmful policies.

prison guard escorting inmate in jail

Credit: Thomasaf/Getty Images

Despite the current divisive nature of politics, criminal justice reform has remained bipartisan. The Clean Slate Act was introduced by Democrat Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware and Republican Guy Reschenthaler of Pennsylvania.

The federal bill follows 2018′s passage of the Clean Slate Act in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania law seals the records for certain misdemeanor convictions, and it allows offenders to petition the courts to have their records sealed. The law mandates that offenders must wait 10 years before they can have their records sealed, and they must not be convicted for other crimes.

In a political time when it seems like nothing can be accomplished due to partisan hostilities, now is our chance to work together to address the ramifications of overcriminalization in the country.

Photo credit: sakhorn38/Getty Images


Ganaisha Calvin
Ganaisha Calvin2 days ago

way overdue

Sue H
Sue H8 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

Chad Anderson
Chad Anderson11 days ago

Thank you.

Mary B
Mary B21 days ago

Bernie Sanders advocates for allowing incarcerated people to vote as a way of helping them stay connected to the outside world and their responsibilities as citizens once they are released. While this Clean Slate Bill sounds good, I fear it might be a tip off to potential employers that the blank space means prison time so there needs to be a way to voluntarily unlock it if the former inmate controls his own record. The idea is to rebuild responsibility and trust if possible.

Ruth S
Ruth S21 days ago


Ruth S
Ruth S21 days ago

In USA, too many time it seems the small crimes get a harsher punishment than murder!

Olivia H
Olivia H22 days ago


Sherry K
Sherry Kohn22 days ago

Many thanks to you !

Shirley S
Shirley S22 days ago

A clean slate seems to be a good idea.

Debbi W
Debbi W22 days ago

I would rather the Clean Slate Bill deal with marijuana offenders and no one else. There are non-violent offenders who need to have records available to be seen.