Clean Slate legislation has been filed in Missouri’s house and senate, the result of a concerted push by advocates around the state, including Empower Missouri, who believe that the time is right for automatic record sealing. Automatic expungement means that anyone who qualifies to have their record sealed* would receive it automatically, without having to go through the current petition-based process of seeking an expungement – a process that only 1% have been able to complete.
*Qualifications are based on the type of offense and the length of time since sentence completion.
The Petition Process Is Not Working
In 2016 and 2019, Missouri lawmakers passed legislation that significantly expanded the pool of individuals who are eligible for expungement under RSMO 610.140 (the Missouri statute that defines the expungement process). The passage of SB 588 (2016) and SB 1 (2019), added many eligible misdemeanor offenses and non-violent felony offenses, and reduced the waiting periods before the record can be expunged. Unfortunately, the process is still largely inaccessible for the majority of Missouri residents, even if they qualify. The current process is time-consuming, expensive (the average expungement in MO costs $500, not including attorney fees), and confusing.
There are several clinics throughout the state that provide pro-bono assistance for qualifying individuals: the University of Missouri- Kansas City’s expungement clinic, Arch City Defenders in St. Louis, and the “Clean Slate” clinic in Springfield, a collaboration between Legal Services of Southern Missouri and the Springfield Metropolitan Bar Foundation. Even with these resources, research shows that only 1% of Missouri residents who qualify for expungement have been able to actually seal their records. At the current rate of expungement, it would take 1,000 years to clear the backlog of Missouri residents who are eligible for record sealing today. This is unacceptable for our state. Clean Slate will provide a path forward for the 518,000 Missourians with criminal convictions eligible for record sealing who have not yet received assistance.
A Life Sentence for Families
Prior to joining the team at Empower, I served in a variety of community-based social work roles where I advocated directly for people who had recently returned from incarceration, were currently incarcerated in prison or jail, or were otherwise impacted by the lifelong implications of a criminal record. The majority of the people I worked with were providing support to other family members, and many were parents. Their records were not just holding them back, but everyone in their household. Research shows that nine in ten employers, four in five landlords, and three in five colleges use criminal background checks to screen applicants, making it extremely difficult for someone with a record to access secure employment, housing, and educational opportunities. A criminal record carries both social stigma and a host of regulatory restrictions, meaning that when someone’s sentence concludes, whether a period of incarceration or a term of probation, their punishment has not ended, just evolved. This unending punishment is the true consequence of mass incarceration in America.
Nearly half of American children now have at least one parent with a criminal record, according to a 2015 report. This means that the collateral impact of a record is not just borne by the individual, but rather by the entire family unit. A quote from Fran Marion, a Kansas City based organizer, low-wage worker, and supporter of Clean Slate, illustrates this truth: “My kids are doing a life sentence with me because [my record] affects me keeping a roof over their heads. I can meet every criteria for a job, but you see that felony and it’s over with.” Hear more from Fran and others about the impact of records on Missouri families by watching this short video or reading the stories on the campaign website.
Kids Caught in the Middle
The evidence is clear that criminal records affect our communities’ families’ ability to thrive. Family income, savings and assets, access to education, housing, and overall stability are all impacted. Parents with a record have lower earning potential due to barriers to securing gainful employment and public benefits. Criminal justice debts (such as court fines and restitution) and unaffordable child support arrears can severely limit families’ ability to save for the future and can trap them in a cycle of debt. Parents with records face obstacles to education and training opportunities that could offer a path to higher paying employment. Housing barriers for both public housing assistance and private housing leads to housing instability and can make family reunification difficult if not impossible for families that have been separated due to incarceration or poverty.
Finally, the financial and emotional stressors that come with parental criminal records can create obstacles in maintaining healthy relationships and family stability. These factors all have long-term consequences for a child’s mental development, education, future employment opportunities, and overall well-being. This is a convincing argument in support of Clean Slate: automatic expungement offers a way forward for families suffering from the ongoing harms of a record. When parents can receive record sealing relief, kids and families win.
Second Chances for Families
The good news is that it doesn’t take long for families to benefit from the positive impact of a sealed record. Implementing Clean Slate will address the myriad barriers for over half a million people in Missouri and their families. Research from the University of Michigan finds that people are 11 percent more likely to be employed and are earning 22 percent higher wages one year after a record has been expunged. These immediate benefits have long term impacts: for a child living in poverty, research shows that a $3,000 increase in their family’s annual income leads to a 17 percent increase in the child’s annual earnings later in life. By removing parental barriers to employment, housing and education, we can help give all children the chance they deserve.
Join Empower Missouri in calling on lawmakers to support Clean Slate and pass HB 352 and SB 347 in support of Missouri families.