Expunging Criminal Records

Rep. Bobby Joe Champion

Comments from Minnesota's State Represntative (DFL) District 58B

From the Rights Stuff Newsletter April 2009

"If a white kid gets in a fight in school, they aren’t referred to the liaison officer and then to court, or anything like that. They’re talked to."

- Rep. Bobby Joe Champion

Comments from Rep. Bobby Joe Champion

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Question: What are some of the obstacles now facing those who have been arrested or convicted of a crime, and want to be productive members of society?

Bobby Joe ChampionRep. Champion: A person who’s paid their debt to society faces the unfortunate notion of a criminal background check being executed. Someone may have pled guilty or been found guilty of a crime and been incarcerated, or may only have been arrested. No matter how long ago that set of circumstances happened, they feel the effects of what we call collateral sanctions. They are prohibited from certain employment opportunities, and when we think of education, there are some grants or loans that you can’t receive if you have a felony on your record. There are also some challenges around housing.

How do you give people an opportunity to improve their quality of life by getting back into our society, even though they may have had a lapse in their judgment? Or may have found themselves in a set of circumstances that they wish they had not? How do we get them reengaged so that they are not paying this price over and over again? How do we forgive and allow people to get back into society, without this crowd of people saying we’re light on crime?

We all end up losing, not just the person who’s going through these challenges. If a person can’t find a job, they can’t pay taxes. If a person can’t build up their intellectual capacity, how can they be a part of the intelligent workforce that we need? If you can’t get a job and you want to be able to provide for yourself and your family, and there are all of these barriers that prevent you from doing that positively, you’re going to have to do something. So now you find yourself back in an unfortunate situation, and then we as taxpayers end up paying again. We spend over $30,000 a year for someone to be incarcerated. I’d much rather we make those sort of investments for people to positively contribute to society.

What are the things we need to do to fix this problem you described?

We need to articulate and accept public policies that will lower or delete these barriers. We need to have a paradigm shift -- most people think that if you think this way, then you’re not tough enough on crime, and I don’t think that’s the issue. And when we look at the deficits we find ourselves in, we have to think differently about how we spend money and what sort of investments we are making.

What are some things that could happen? Expungement of records. There are some things we don’t really need to know about. There are certain unfortunate crimes that maybe a person shouldn’t be incarcerated for, like low-level drug offenses, for an example -- non-violent crime, for an example. I’m not suggesting a murderer should be walking the streets of Minneapolis.

So I think that we have to start specifically looking at those sort of things. And that’s why I’ve introduced legislation to give a private employer what I would consider some leeway, if a person wants to sue a private employer for hiring a person that may have had something on their background check.

What should an employer be able to know with respect to the problems in someone’s past?

I think an employer should know what a person did. But I think they should know that after they’ve made a decision that the person is going to get the job or not. Then once they look at the infraction, they can look and see if there is a nexus between the infraction and the potential work that person may do.

What happens now, is that when you fill out an application, they ask the question right upfront. If you answer yes, what do you think they do with your application? They throw it away. But my felony could have been that I stole a jacket when I was 18 years old, and now I’m 45. I was put on probation, and I’ve been a rehabilitated person since that time. Now I’m applying to be a janitor in a gymnasium. I think you’ve got to look at the nexus between the infraction and what the person is looking at doing now.

How can we address the disproportionate impact that background checks and the use of arrest and conviction records may have on persons of color?

We have to have a realistic conversation around all the empirical data that suggests that children of color are disproportionately brought into the system and charged with low-level crimes, or crimes period. If a white kid gets in a fight in school, they aren’t referred to the liaison officer and then to court, or anything like that. They’re talked to. But a black kid or Latino kid or Asian kid can have the same fight at school, and a child of color is going to the juvenile justice system. So all of a sudden they’ve got a record, and now this introduction into the juvenile justice system follows them throughout adulthood.

That same unfortunate perspective is what people of color and communities of color deal with even as adults. As adults they are incarcerated at disproportionate rates compared to anyone else. And even if they are given probation, they are not given anything that would say: here are the things you need to do, because we want to make sure that you’ll have an opportunity to look at your life differently and make some different choices. So now you get out of jail, and you’re trying to find work, or you’re trying to go to school or find housing. When your names shows up as part of a criminal background check, they’re not going to consider you, or any of the positive things that you could do.

Is there evidence that employers take a different view of an arrest or conviction in someone’s past, if the job applicant is also a person of color?

I don’t think I have any empirical data that would speak specifically to that question. But people of color are looked at differently, period. Race is an issue. People come with their world views, their experiences, their thoughts, their stereotypes about people. And when they don’t know you, they just fill in the blanks based on their worldview and their experiences.

What are the concerns you hear from those who may have reservations about proposed “second chance” legislation, such as reforms to expungement laws?

Right to know. When does a landlord have a right to know? When does an employer have a right to know? There lies their biggest issue. Others will say, are we being soft on crime? Yes, when you do something wrong, there are always collateral sanctions. But the question becomes, how long should these collateral sanctions be in place? And how long must a person suffer the results of making a bad decision? And then the bigger question that we’ve got to ask ourselves is: How much longer are we willing to keep paying the cost, without doing something differently?

What about the argument that all this information is on the Internet anyway, so that expunging it or limiting access to it won’t really matter?

But what about the public policy message? If we take a step that says, we believe that this should not be a part of the discussion, then that means something. If an employer knows of an infraction, they should have to make the connection to see if it’s relevant to the employment opportunity that the person is going for. It’s important to say to employers, hey, here is when you should be thinking about that. We have to frame the issue differently and start talking about it differently.

What is it that drives your passion for these issues?

Fairness. Redemption. Improving our quality of life as Minnesotans. Those are the guiding principles that push me, that drive me. I’m driven by improving the quality of life for all of us, and giving us all an opportunity to build wealth -- to be educated, and to provide our children with a quality education. And for all of us to feel safe -- not just feel safe, but be safe. These are the things that I believe to be important.

Sometimes we’ve got to deal with complex and challenging issues in real-time, for the benefit of the whole. One of the things that President Barack Obama has been talking about is shared sacrifice, and not seeing each other as red or blue states. Are we doing some things in our own practices that are making it difficult for our brethren, fellow Americans, to live and to be contributing members to society? If we are, then we need to look at that. And we need to be honest about what we’re doing. and what we need to do to change that dynamic.

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