By Malcom Jenkins, All-Pro Safety, Philadelphia Eagles
There are many statistics you can call on to prove just how broken our criminal justice system is, but one of the most powerful is this: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 77 percent of those released from our federal and state prisons will be rearrested within five years. Think about that. How can we accept a system that fails so often?
The fact is, in most cases, being incarcerated does nothing more than prepare you to be incarcerated again. Having a record is like being branded with a scarlet letter—it follows you forever! It keeps you from getting jobs, housing, government assistance, education, business loans, and keeps from you a ton of rights and resources that are protected and available to every other citizen. The lack of opportunity pushes you to reoffend when you feel like you have no other option.
I’ve heard the same stories from countless ex-offenders over the last year, tales of just how hard reentry is once their time has been served. I’ve heard how an otherwise promising job interview hits a brick wall once an employer runs a background check. I’ve personally had to witness my own brother struggle to find steady employment because he has a felony for possession of a small amount of marijuana on his record. This has made it burdensome to provide for his three kids and to do right by his community. I’m proud of how hard he’s worked to keep himself out of trouble despite the difficulties. But I see how tough it is…and it doesn’t need to be.
That’s why I’ve been advocating for the state legislature to pass the Clean Slate Act (Senate Bill 529 and House Bill 1419), which would be the first legislation of its kind to use technology to automatically seal certain low-level, nonviolent criminal records from public view.
Clean Slate would seal charges not resulting in convictions after 60 days and misdemeanor convictions (except for violent and sex offenses) after 10 years, as long as there have been no subsequent convictions. Sealed records would still be accessible to law enforcement—but not to the public. That means it will help the 30 percent of Pennsylvanians who have a criminal record by removing barriers to employment and restoring access to housing, education, and occupational licenses.
The legislation, which has bipartisan support and was passed by the State Senate in May, is not a cure to the problems plaguing those who have served their debt to society and are actively chasing the American dream. But it is a simple way to begin to chip away at a huge problem. It will prevent minor criminal records from trapping people in poverty for life.
The bill’s fate is up in the air in the House, so do what I’m doing and contact your state representativesand make sure they know you favor reforms that seal minor criminal records.
Of course, Clean Slate isn’t the only reform we should be pressing for. We’ll talk about many others as the season goes on. But a related one comes immediately to mind: In Ohio, where I played football for THEOhio State University, I rounded up a bunch of former Buckeyes and we wrote letters in favor of passing TCAP—Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison. It’s a pilot diversionary program for inmates sentenced to less than a year in prison for minor offenses—usually marijuana.
Once TCAP passed, instead of being sent to jail, these offenders were sent to community treatment programs, where they receive job training and mentorship. It’s a program that has saved money for the state, but—more importantly—it has saved lives by preparing citizens to reenter society. Doesn’t it make sense to spend less money and build someone up for nine months than to spend even more money to hold him back and set him up for reincarceration?
I’m pushing for reforms like Clean Slate and TCAP because, as a black man in America, I can see myself in all those who find themselves swept up in the criminal justice system. Too many of us look at those stories and say, “That’s not me, I can let that go.” But you don’t need to be touched directly by injustice to fight against it.