As children we grow up being taught to believe in second chances. Think of any hero from any novel or movie you watched growing up. It isn’t until the hero fails or is brought low that he can rise to defeat whatever evil is encountered. This very country was built upon the belief that anyone can rise above their past. A second chance, a new life, these were and are the mantras of countless individuals as they flock to the shores of this great nation.
However, in the criminal justice system this simply is not the reality. Once convicted of a crime that is it, we might as well brand the word “CRIMINAL” on their forehead. “CRIMINAL” is the title that will follow you for the rest of your life. Every job, college or educational institute will demand to know, “Have you been convicted of a crime?” Now with educational options stunted and job prospects limited to low-wage/unskilled work, the prospect of rising above their past slips further and further away.
The fact is the law sets out punishments for crimes, commonly referred to as the person’s “debt to society.” They range from probation and fines to jail time and even death. Why must we erect such a significant roadblock to employment and education right on top? Lawmakers and politicians complain of high recidivism, yet they completely ignore the root cause. A kid (18 years old) gets caught with drugs, he is convicted and sentenced to 8 years in prison because he happened to be pulled over a 2:00 in the morning across the street from a daycare. He serves his sentence and now, at the age of 26, he has a permanent conviction for drugs in a school zone. No funding for school, no real job opportunities, just minimum wage work. However, he has a mother and siblings he has to help take care of. Determined to do anything he can to keep his family from starving, he only has two options, He can live on welfare and food stamps in government housing, while trying to provide for his family or he can sell drugs. Is that even a choice? Seems like an easy question to answer, but until we have walked in his shoes, felt the stress of not knowing how to provide for the family for the last two weeks of the month (because he isn’t getting enough hours at his minimum wage job, and the government assistance isn’t enough to cover the gaps in income for the entire month), we really can’t judge him for choosing to do anything to make sure his family has enough.
Now to address all of those who will say that there is a current expungement law and what about diversion. The current expungement law provides that if you have a single case on your record, and it is the only thing that you have ever been convicted of in your entire life, then you might be able to get it expunged from your record. Also, at least four years has had to of passed since you completed your sentence. Additionally, the case you were convicted of can only contain one count (IE simple possession = ok, simple possession and paraphernalia = not ok). Finally, that single offense can only be expunged if it is on the specific list of low end offenses enumerated in the statute. If all of those magical stars align then you can hire an attorney who can file with the Court (an additional $450 fee on top of attorney fees) a request for expungement that may or may not be granted 30-60 days later……Seriously, this is not a legitimate option. Diversion on the hand is a great solution and an opportunity that should be jumped on whenever possible. However, diversion is only available by agreement in advance, or by taking a chance at a sentencing hearing. It is not available to anyone who has already been convicted and accordingly is not relevant to this discussion.
The truth is, without dramatic changes to the law and providing realistic expungemnet options a second chance will never be available to countless individuals who not only having paid their debt to society but, they must now live branded with the shame of their past actions for the rest of their lives.