DOVER — America, it’s often said, is the land of opportunity.
But for some, that opportunity is more like a cruel joke, something snatched away at an early age — if indeed they ever really had it.
Put yourself in the shoes of a young man who falls into the spiraling rabbit hole of addiction. Before long, he is caught with a large quantity of heroin and convicted of a felony. He is incarcerated for a few years, where he receives treatment, and when he leaves jail, he’s ready to put his life back together.
But once outside, he faces obstacles that seem designed to thwart people just like him by essentially forcing him to identify as a felon.
He can’t find a job because most employers don’t want to hire a felon, and he might not be able to find stable housing of his own or go back to school for the same reason.
Soon, he has no hope and is forced to turn back to the streets.
He falls into crime again, breaking the law in acts of economic desperation.
From there, he ends up back in jail, a vicious cycle that could continue for the rest of his life.
This is the reality for many Delawareans, who bear the burden for youthful mistakes throughout their entire lives.
“Once you have that conviction, it becomes that scarlet letter ... where every single interview you go to, when you apply for housing, when you look for credit, when you try and get an educational opportunity, you’re waiting for that shoe to drop,” said Mike Brickner, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware.
As Center for American Progress senior fellow Rebecca Vallas put it, “A criminal record can be a life sentence to poverty that no judge ever handed down.”
Now, there is a coalition fighting to change that.
Some Delaware lawmakers, backed by groups like the ACLU, the Center for American Progress and the Delaware Center for Justice, plan to introduce a bill in the near future that would establish automatic expungements for qualifying ex-offenders.
Although some details are still being worked out, the legislation would require an individual to stay out of the criminal justice system for a certain amount of time to have his or her conviction sealed. Not all offenses would be able to be expunged, but the bill would definitely cover at least some felonies. The length of time before a person is eligible for expungement would depend on the severity of the offense.
The change would help combat the “root cause of systemic poverty,” Sen. Darius Brown, a Wilmington Democrat who will introduce the measure, said during a virtual news conference Wednesday.
Lawmakers have passed several other expungement bills in recent years, but this would be the broadest one yet. It would also prevent people from having to go through the current expungement process, which can be confusing and costly.
According to research by the Second Chance Gap initiative of Santa Clara University, roughly 107,000 Delawareans could have all their records cleared (including those without convictions), while around 58,000 are eligible to have all their convictions expunged. At the current rate, however, it would take more than 194 years to clear the existing backlog, per the findings.
The American Bar Association reports that Delaware has 792 “collateral consequences” — side effects of a criminal conviction that make it hard to find work or housing.
“Many collateral consequences serve little or no public policy purpose. There is no public benefit to preventing ticket scalpers from living in public housing, or marijuana possessors from being licensed as funeral directors,” states a report from the Delaware ACLU.
“Even collateral consequences that might make sense when applied narrowly are counterproductive when applied too broadly. A person convicted of identity theft and one convicted of assault do not pose the same risks and challenges upon completion of their sentences, and yet collateral consequence laws often group together all felonies or even all crimes,” the report continues.
Individuals who have paid their debts and have kept out of trouble deserve fair second chances, speakers said Wednesday.
“When we seek rehabilitation, we really are seeking to give persons their humanity back, their personhood back,” said the Rev. Silvester S. Beaman, pastor at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Corie Priest, who served two years for marijuana trafficking, described the troubles he faced after leaving prison. Despite temptation to give up because he felt he had “the scarlet letter F tattooed on” his forehead, he kept pushing and now has a bachelor’s degree from Wilmington University and a job with the Delaware Department of Justice.
After an expanded expungement bill was signed into law in 2019, Mr. Priest got his conviction sealed last year.
“It was like my second birthday ... because it allowed me to restore my dignity. It allowed me to restore my citizenry,” he recalled.