In December 2014, I wrote about Maurice Alexander, a Legal Aid client who came to us for help when he was unable to secure housing because of an old misdemeanor conviction. This morning, the Washington City Paper published an article detailing Mr. Alexander’s story, and the lawsuit that the Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs recently filed on his behalf.
Mr. Alexander is hardly alone in the challenges he faced. As many as 100 million Americans have some kind of criminal record. Depending on the nature of his or her offense, an individual with a criminal history in the District of Columbia may face more than 600 different collateral consequences. These laws can prevent individuals from obtaining housing, employment, student loans, and professional licenses. In effect, these collateral consequences can make it nearly impossible for ex-offenders to successfully return to lives as contributing members of their communities.
And it is not only those with criminal histories who are impacted by these policies. A criminal history greatly lowers ex-offenders’ prospects in the labor market, and the correlating reductions in employability cost the U.S. economy between $57 and $65 billion in lost output every year. State and local governments are increasingly aware of the negative impact of these policies, and gradually, lawmakers are carving exceptions and creating opportunities for those with criminal histories to mitigate the harm caused by collateral consequences.
In D.C., one such opportunity is criminal record sealing, also called “expungement.” The District allows individuals to apply to have arrest and conviction records for certain misdemeanor offenses sealed, meaning that they become invisible to potential employers, housing providers, and other organizations and agencies. Effective March 2015, City Council expanded the law to allow for the sealing of decriminalized and legalized offenses, most notably possession of small quantities of marijuana.
Record sealing is an imperfect solution with many limitations, and even people whose records have been sealed may face ongoing challenges as background check agencies retain and continue to share their criminal histories. Nevertheless, it is a huge step in the right direction.
Legal Aid attorneys have a first-hand view of the very real cost of collateral consequences to individuals, families, and the community at large. We know when our clients are unable to secure housing due to criminal history. We have met families who are unable to provide for their children because an adult household member is facing barriers to employment. We understand the problem, and we are committed to helping create solutions.
Last year, Legal Aid was part of a coalition that advocated for -- and testified in favor of -- the Fair Criminal Record Screening Act (also known as “Ban the Box”). The law, which is now in effect, puts an end to the discriminatory practice of automatically disqualifying individuals based solely on their history with the criminal justice system.
More recently, Legal Aid launched a pilot project designed to assist our clients in filing motions to have their criminal records sealed. Through the project, we will also examine and, where possible, help address other barriers to re-entry. Our long term goal is to assist individuals to successfully reach economic stability, significantly decrease the risk of recidivism, and even ease or eliminate the other problems which bring them to Legal Aid in the first place.