Commentary: More deserve a fair path to a clean slate

Certain nonviolent convictions can be cleared from records. A bill could make the process less costly.

By Nila Bala and Arthur Rizer / For The Herald

Even after serving their time and paying their debts to society, many Washingtonians are held back by a criminal record, which locks them out of many opportunities for a lifetime. Luckily, Washington has a process in place to vacate some convictions if individuals remain crime-free for a certain period. So it’s a shame that less than 5 percent apply to have their records vacated.

A bill that has passed the House with bipartisan support and could move to the Senate floor by today’s deadline could help. By creating a study group and pilot to automate record clearances, the “clean slate” bill could provide an opportunity for relief for the 1.8 million Washington residents who have a criminal record.

Coming into contact with the criminal justice system often means being marked as an offender for the rest of one’s life. The stigma of a record, even a minor one, hurts a person’s chances of employment. While Washington has had a “ban the box” policy since 2018, meaning employers can’t ask about criminal records in the initial stages of a job application, this initiative falls short; employers can and do find out about records, and still shut people out of jobs. Largely as a result, over two-thirds of those with records in Washington remain unemployed.

Yes, punishment is one of the pillars of our criminal justice system. But when that punishment extends far past one’s sentence and prevents successful reintegration with society, we all pay the price. The stigma associated with a criminal record hurts the families and loved ones of those with records, as their children suffer physically and mentally from the barriers set up by the criminal justice system. Moreover, public safety suffers when people with records cannot obtain the basic building blocks of a stable life: employment and housing. It is little wonder that clearing records has been linked not to increased crime, but to decreased rates of offending.

In Washington, conviction records can be vacated only after a waiting period has elapsed; which means the guilty finding is removed, replaced with a dismissal and vacated. This is a good thing: Research suggests that after a few years, individuals with records are no more likely than anyone in the general population to reoffend.

Unfortunately, most individuals who are eligible do not apply, often because they are not aware they are eligible, or they are deterred by the cumbersome and costly nature of the process. Washington courts recommend seeking an attorney to help with the process, which can make vacating a conviction so expensive that it is beyond the reach of most. One woman testified at the House Public Safety committee hearing that she was told it would cost $3,000 to clear her record. This is why automating the process would be so powerful.

Washington lawmakers have already determined that certain serious crimes can never be vacated from a person’s record, and House Bill 2793 does not remove any of these offenses. Crimes that cannot be vacated, even under the bill, include all Class A felonies, certain domestic violence related offenses, violent offenses, sex offenses, offenses with a sexual motivation enhancement, obscenity and pornography offenses and repeated DUI offenses.

What’s more, vacated records under this bill are still available to law enforcement, meaning that if a person gets in trouble with the law, police still have access to the information they need. But if people are living a law-abiding life, there is no reason they should be haunted by a record; the presence of which actually makes us all less safe.

Automating the record clearance process would equalize the playing field, so it is not only the well-off and well-resourced who can vacate their records. The bill will study automating record clearances, to improve access to jobs and housing, and make our communities safer. And it would restore human dignity to the many Washingtonians who are sentenced to a lifetime of poverty because of their criminal records.

Nila Bala is the associate director of Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties at the R Street Institute, and a former public defender. Arthur Rizer is a Washington state native and the Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties director at the R Street Institute. Rizer is also a former police officer from Cheney.

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