Commentary

How our laws block people from turning their lives around

A decades-old misdemeanor can force you into homelessness. A ‘clean slate’ would change that.

September 22, 2021 4:30 am

Adam Abdullah, Mentor Program Coordinator shakes hands with Mark Palmer, a client at Second Chance Center in Denver, May 20, 2021. (Kevin Mohatt for Colorado Newsline)

What should the penalty be for someone convicted of a minor, nonviolent drug offense? Many on the left would say none at all, while some on the right would demand jail time or state-mandated rehab.

Whatever their politics, nearly all Coloradans would agree that something as severe as a lifetime of penalties, with possible unemployment and homelessness lurking around every corner, is an excessively cruel punishment that does not fit the crime. Yet this is precisely what our state does to thousands of Coloradans every year by failing to automatically seal the records of those who have served their time for a nonviolent offense and wish to turn their lives around.

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As a housing attorney, I have witnessed this cruelty firsthand. Earlier this year, I represented a couple facing eviction at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic due to a loophole in the eviction moratorium. They applied for a new affordable housing unit and were on the verge of being accepted before a background check prevented them from getting housing. The reason? A low-level drug conviction from decades back.

For one mistake decades in the past, they faced the immediate prospect of homelessness, in the middle of a pandemic. Even though they served their time and have lived quiet, law-abiding lives for decades since, they are being punished all over again with the harrowing experience of not being able to secure stable housing in the midst of a pandemic. Countless others have suffered the same fate.

Even if you have never been convicted of a crime, one arrest is often enough to place you on a government list that inhibits your ability to fully engage in society.

Nearly 2 million Coloradans are currently listed in state record databases for having conviction and non-conviction records. Even if you have never been convicted of a crime, one arrest is often enough to place you on a government list that inhibits your ability to fully engage in society – alongside a staggering 31% of Colorado’s population. Of that percentage, many have no criminal history whatsoever beyond an initial, often low-level record.

These records destroy lives. They make it exponentially more difficult for those attempting to re-enter society to find a job and a home – the very things they need the most to get their lives back on track and leave criminal behavior in the past. Colorado’s system of punishment demands former criminals reintegrate as “productive members of society” while simultaneously blocking their path to doing so.

There is no justice in this.

It should be no surprise that 50% of people leaving prison in Colorado find themselves back behind bars within three years, which is even worse than America’s already dismal national average of 40%. This high recidivism rate directly results from deliberate policy choices that compound systemic racism – the same kind of policy choices that gave us an unambiguous, catastrophic failure in the war on drugs.

There is no justice in a system where people of color are more likely to be convicted for low-level offenses than white defendants and more likely to face more severe punishments where they commit the same crimes as white defendants. Those communities then bear the brunt of the impact from the lasting punishment of unsealed criminal records.

It does not have to be this way. Just as our current system results from deliberate policy choices, so can we build something better by making different ones.

Colorado needs a clean slate bill. This legislation would automatically seal non-conviction and non-violent conviction records for Coloradans who have completed their sentences. Law enforcement could still access these sealed records if needed. But we must not allow them to be used for the kind of housing and employment discrimination that is all too common today.

People play chess at Second Chance Center in Denver, May 20, 2021. (Kevin Mohatt for Colorado Newsline)

Before we get a clean slate bill, though, advocates are hosting a free record sealing clinic for folks who are eligible to put their past behind them and enjoy all of the opportunities many of the rest of us take for granted. On Saturday, Oct. 2, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Expunge Colorado and the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado will be at the Second Chance Center, 224 Potomac St., in Aurora, to help folks see if they’re eligible to have their records sealed under current law.

The impact stable housing and employment have on ensuring people do not re-offend and land back in prison cannot be overstated. Take the example of Colorado’s Second Chance Center, an Aurora-based nonprofit that has supported thousands of people leaving prison since its launch in 2012. Thanks in large part to their housing-first approach, less than 10% of people who have walked through their doors in the past seven years have gone back to prison. That number drops to under 5% when paired with the state’s existing Work and Gain Education & Employment Skills program.

This phenomenal success does not have to be limited to one nonprofit. A clean slate bill would lift barriers to housing and employment, allowing thousands more formerly incarcerated Coloradans to get jobs, get housed, and leave their nonviolent offenses in the past.

Our lawmakers must pass a clean slate bill without delay.

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Javier Mabrey
Javier Mabrey

Javier Mabrey is a lawyer and former policy advocate with the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project. He is a Democratic candidate for Colorado's 1st House District.

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