By Daniel Bowes, Equal Justice Works Fellow with the NC Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project
As a 17-year-old boy, Luther* was charged with a non-violent felony. It was his first brush with the law, and he was advised that if he pled guilty to the charge he would serve just a few months in prison and be released in time to start college in the spring. Thinking himself fortunate to have avoided a lengthier sentence, he accepted the deal and was convicted.
Almost twenty years later, Luther is all too familiar with the collateral consequences of his criminal conviction. These consequences, after all, have had a far more detrimental impact on his life than his actual criminal punishment. Like many of the 1.6 million North Carolinians with criminal records, Luther remains isolated from many of the opportunities and resources essential to productive citizenship because of this criminal record.
Many landlords refuse to rent to him. Most employers will not even interview him. Plus, more than 900 state and federal laws deny Luther a wide range of privileges and rights because of his conviction.
Punishment Far Bigger than the Crime
Often, it is reasonable and appropriate for an employer, landlord or government agency to consider an individual’s criminal record. Prior behavior may indicate an inability or unwillingness to responsibly enjoy a privilege, discharge the duties of a profession or job, or comply with certain rules or agreements.
But there is more to a person than his worst mistake. Accordingly, there needs to be an individualized assessment of each applicant—looking at what the person has done since his conviction and who he is today—in order to appropriately determine risk. Instead, employers, landlords and state officials often see only a box on an application checked “yes” beneath the question “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” For many people with criminal convictions, the opportunity to build new lives and provide for their families ends right there.
“No matter how well an interview is going, when I tell them about my conviction the whole atmosphere changes,” Luther said. “I can almost feel this wall going up.”
Such automatic reactions unnecessarily isolate thousands of low-risk North Carolinians from gainful employment, housing, and community supports. It is not surprising then that, decades removed from his crime and punishment, Luther, like many people with criminal convictions, feels he is “still serving time.”
Setting People Up for Defeat
By burdening individuals with many far-reaching collateral consequences and offering them little assistance in starting new lives (see sidebar), North Carolina’s current reentry scheme sets up people for defeat.
Society demands individuals with criminal records not re-offend but then deprives them of meaningful opportunities to provide for themselves. Rehabilitation and reintegration are the stated goals, but far too often laws and personal preferences force men and women with criminal records to the fringes of communities—far adrift from the normalizing, day-to-day relationships that support reintegration.
Community safety is, as it should be, the first priority, but the state has created a peculiar circumstance of exclusion that often facilitates re-offending. We suffer a heavy toll for these contradictions: North Carolina’s three-year recidivism rate is 40 percent, and the state spends $1.2 billion a year on incarceration.
Stopping the Revolving Door
North Carolina’s leaders have begun to realize that a revolving-door criminal justice system is unfair, costly, and unsafe, and they are working to end it.
In 2010, Governor Bev Perdue’s StreetSafe Task Force provided a host of recommendations for additional re-entry services and reforms of state practices. Following one of the task force’s recommendation in 2011, the state legislature gave the state’s courts the discretion to grant a “certificate of relief” to an individual with a misdemeanor or low-level felony conviction if the court is satisfied he does not pose an unreasonable risk to society. Certificates of relief transform most automatic sanctions into discretionary disqualifications. They also protect employers who hire certificate holders against negligent hiring liability.
In early 2012, the NC General Assembly’s Committee on Criminal Record Expunctions proposed legislation providing for the expunctions of first-time nonviolent offenses. The legislature passed the bill and, as of December 2012, courts will have the discretion to expunge first-time nonviolent misdemeanors and felonies after 15 years of good behavior. This measured but historic legislation represents the first time expunctions of nonviolent offenses are generally available to individuals regardless of their age at the time of the offense.
These executive and legislative efforts are significant steps toward creating a reentry system that works for all of us. Ultimately, North Carolina needs a re-entry system that meaningfully restores opportunities and resources to people with criminal records based on individualized assessments of risk and need. Not only is such a system more just, it better ensures safe communities.
While there is much room for continued improvement, these and other recent steps forward should be celebrated for their positive impacts in the lives of people who deserve a second chance.
People like Luther, who is now eligible for both an expunction of his nonviolent felony conviction and a certificate of relief. These tools of relief offer Luther an opportunity to finally move beyond a mistake that has defined much of his life and more fully provide for his family and contribute to his community.
*We omitted Luther’s last name at his request.
Ending the Cycle of Recidivism
People with criminal records often can’t get the social supports they need to become self-sufficient and successfully reintegrate with society. A labyrinth of state and federal laws deny them access to many traditional social supports, and there are not enough private reentry-focused service programs in North Carolina to meet the need.
To address these inadequacies, the General Assembly recently established a pilot program for a statewide network of local reentry councils that will coordinate the delivery of services and respond to gaps in resources. A statewide reentry advisory board will make recommendations to the Department of Public Safety regarding any gaps that local reentry councils identified but were unable to plug.
Of course, the local reentry councils’ success will be dependent on the actual availability of reentry-specific resources. Fortunately, North Carolina’s justice system is set to save more than $250 million over the next six years thanks to the Justice Reinvestment Act, which makes numerous cost-saving changes to the corrections system, such as placing many more individuals on community-based supervision rather than in prison beds. If a significant portion of this expected saving is reinvested in reentry supports, North Carolina’s communities will become safer and more inclusive.