As the largest and oldest anti-poverty advocacy agency in our state, Empower Missouri is committed to improving the quality of life for all Missouri residents through advocacy. Since our inception, Empower Missouri has focused on the criminal justice system and its impacts. Our Community Justice Coalition consists of community advocates and organizations from across the state who work with those who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. Many coalition members are formerly incarcerated or have currently incarcerated loved ones, and all are connected by a vision for a future without mass incarceration. 

We are thrilled to offer testimony in support of SB 763 and SB 1161, which we’ll be referencing as Clean Slate legislation. Our nation’s criminal justice system was conceived and implemented long before the internet became an integral component of our society. The justice system was designed to both punish and rehabilitate people who break the law, serving as a deterrent for illegal activities and offering corrective supports to those who have broken the law out of desperation, due to mental illness or addiction, or as youthful indiscretions. Individuals are tried by a jury of their peers, and if they are found guilty, they are sentenced to a punishment that is commensurate with the level of harm caused to the community. 

The system was not designed to punish people for the rest of their lives. However, with the advent of the internet and online repositories for criminal records, this is the reality in which we currently live. Many individuals with past criminal records report years, even decades, of struggling to secure employment and housing due to the high prevalence of background checks conducted by employers and landlords. Nearly 9 in 10 employers use background checks in hiring; an estimated 4 in 5 landlords use background checks on prospective tenants; and more than 3 in 5 colleges and universities use background checks in admissions. In addition, an applicant with a criminal record is 50 percent to 63 percent less likely to get a callback or job offer than an identical applicant without a record; in turn, between 60 percent and 75 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals remain unemployed one year after their release. As a result, previously incarcerated people are 10 times more likely than the general-public to end up homeless. With 1.8 million adults with a criminal record in Missouri, this has resulted in staggering poverty, with ripple effects extending beyond the individual and impacting families, communities and our society as a whole. 

The American Conservative Union’s Nolan Center for Justice asserts that the harm done by a sentence should never be greater than the harm caused by a crime. But records for offenses like drug possession, writing a bad check, or petty theft can amount to what feels like a life sentence of being denied jobs, apartments, access to loans, and other collateral consequences for past mistakes. Clean Slate is important because it ensures that punishments fit the crime and have a clear end date, rather than lingering for a lifetime. When we continue to punish people for years or even decades for previous mistakes, we drastically hinder people’s ability to provide for themselves– forcing them onto social safety net programs or back to criminal actions that send them back to prison– both which come at a high cost to taxpayers and society as a whole.

In 2012, Missouri began to recognize the unintended consequences that these criminal records were having on individuals and communities and implemented an expungement process that would allow individuals to have their records sealed from public view, while remaining accessible to law enforcement. Unfortunately, after a decade’s worth of implementation, we have come to understand that the current process is cumbersome, complicated and costly.  As a result, less than one percent of Missourians who are eligible to have their records expunged are actually able to achieve those expungements. This is clearly not having the intended impact, and we are proud to support Representative Christofanelli’s proposal to automate the process so that everyone who has earned the opportunity for a Clean Slate is provided that second chance. Under this system, an algorithm that is coded to eligibility criteria runs a monthly search on the state’s criminal history database and routes the list of eligible records to the courts for processing. 

Automating the process makes it accessible to all Missourians, regardless of whether they have the knowledge, time, and resources to navigate a complicated, costly system over many months or even years. However, expungement would remain unavailable to those who have committed violent or sexual offenses, and individuals would still have to meet a number of standards to qualify for this automated process. Individuals must serve their full sentence, pay any restitution to victims in full, and remain crime-free for several years. (Individuals who remain crime-free three to four years after a nonviolent conviction are no more likely to recidivate than the general population is to be arrested.) And the opportunities that Clean Slate provides—making it easier to get a job, find stable housing, and go back to school—make it even less likely that a person will commit another crime, aiding all of our efforts to create safer communities.

We also know that Clean Slate makes good business sense. It is estimated that the underemployment of formerly incarcerated job seekers costs the US economy more than $78 billion annually. Preliminary research from Michigan finds that recipients of record sealing saw an 11 percent increase in the probability of employment and a 22 percent increase in quarterly wages in the first year. It will help to rebuild our workforce and communities post-pandemic, driving inclusive economic growth. Missouri employers are desperate to fill positions left open by worker shortages across our state. We can help by adding tens of thousands of Missourians back to the workforce with Clean Slate, allowing them the opportunity to provide for their families. Employees with criminal records in the private sector have longer average tenures than employees without records, are less likely to leave voluntarily, and are no more likely to be terminated involuntarily.  For these reasons, a 2022 report from the Missouri Chamber of Commerce & Industry entitled Safer Missouri, Stronger Missouri, touted the value of expungements in putting Missourians back to work. 

There have been some concerns about the implementation of Clean Slate in light of how burdensome the “automatic” expungement of marijuana-related offenses has been under Amendment 3. We’ve done two things to ensure that the implementation of Clean Slate looks very different. First, we added clarifying language this year that specifies that automated expungement only applies to digital records– this means that the records can be identified and expunged more efficiently with the use of data and technology. In other words, this means there won’t be a need for court clerks to dig through storerooms looking for historical paper records. Second, the outlined process in these bills has a staggered implementation timeline—three years to start the new expungement process, and two more years to finish expunging retroactive records. That means the agencies will have a total of five years before current records need to be expunged, which is much more time to implement the policy than the mere months that Amendment 3 offered. Everyone wants this bill to work in the real world, both for people who will gain access to jobs, housing, and other opportunities—and for the court and law enforcement staff that will be implementing it. Proponents of the bill are eager to incorporate feedback from the agencies that will make the bill more efficient for them to carry out.

We all know people who have made mistakes and worked to turn their lives around.  They want to find a job and a good home for their children. They want to go back to school and get the degree that could help them advance. They’ve already paid their debt to society, but their record creates never-ending barriers to their success. They have earned a second chance, and we have the opportunity and the obligation to extend it to them– for the common good.

This testimony was first submitted on March 25th, 2024, to the Senate Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, and again on March 26th, 2024, to the House General Laws Committee. You can follow each bill’s progress using the Bill Trackers below.

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