The line from the classic American songbook “nice work if you can get it and you can get it if you try” has never been truer. As this nation emerges from the pandemic and states pare back COVID-19 restrictions, there are now a record 8.1 million jobs waiting to be filled. However, old criminal records too often keep workers on the sidelines. By acting on pending record-clearing legislation, state lawmakers can enable more Texans to find employment and address the unmet workforce needs of our fast-growing state.
Though the exact number is unclear, as many as 70 million American adults have a record of arrest or conviction. In some cases, a misdemeanor that occurred at the age of 18 can become a lifelong scarlet letter, causing a person to be unemployed or underemployed decades later. Given that the government creates criminal records and that research indicates that nearly all recidivism occurs within the first few years of sentencing or release from prison, there is a public interest in giving those who have proven themselves over time a fresh start by removing this roadblock to success.
Fortunately, Texas lawmakers have recently recognized this imperative when it comes to those convicted of a single nonviolent misdemeanor such as marijuana possession. Legislation adopted in 2015 and expanded in 2017 enables individuals in such cases to seal their record after two years in the community with no new offense. However, few people take advantage of such opportunities for relief, likely because they are unaware or due to the requirement to file documentation and pay a fee.
Several pending bills that are advancing through the Texas House but await action in the Senate would enhance access to record sealing, including HB 3601 by Rep. Jeff Leach which would leverage modern technology to automate the process for those already entitled to seal a single nonviolent misdemeanor.
Notably, record sealing, known formally as nondisclosure in Texas, does not detract from public safety, as prosecutors and law enforcement can still see the sealed records and use them to inform decisions in any future cases. In fact, given the evidence that gainful employment reduces recidivism, expanding access to the sealing of records can be expected to reduce crime.
Additionally, on the heels of pent-up demand following lockdowns and runaway federal spending, recent economic reports have highlighted the specter of spiraling inflation. This effectively amounts to too much money chasing too limited a supply of goods and services. Streamlining record clearing policies is part of the antidote since expanded private sector workforce participation is critical to generating more goods and services. In fact, empirical research has found that record clearing increases employment rates of individuals by up to 10% and earnings during the first three years by one-third.
Automatic record clearing policies are gaining traction across the country. In the last few years, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Utah have adopted “clean slate” legislation with overwhelming bipartisan support. Public support is also robust, with some 71% of Americans backing “clean slate” policies, including 62% of Republicans.
Automating the sealing process for those with a single old nonviolent misdemeanor, who are therefore already entitled to sealing upon request, is not the only priority. In addition, provisions in HB 1394 by Rep. James White would remove the exclusion of those with more than one nonviolent misdemeanor, while still ensuring they have proven themselves over at least two years of living in the community without a new offense.
Gov. Greg Abbott is right to focus on getting Texans “in the paycheck line where they can earn that paycheck to pay their bills and put food on their table.” Texas policymakers must seize this opportunity to clear out the cobwebs of old misdemeanor records and put more of our fellow citizens on the path to prosperity.