A smart move on criminal justice

Senators Robert Casey of Pennsylvania and Joni Ernst of Iowa recently introduced the Clean Slate Act in the United States Senate to follow up on last year’s First Step Act.

U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) speaks at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., December 15, 2020. Nicholas Kamm/Pool via REUTERS

Clean Slate is straightforward — it would automatically seal the federal arrest record of individuals convicted or arrested for simple drug possession and would also allow for petitioning to seal other records not part of the automatic process. Some states have implemented similar policies, though in many cases, individuals must petition to seal their records and then they must go through that process manually. An automated system is easier and more efficient. Casey and Ernst’s bill builds on previous legislation introduced by Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware, who in 2019 called for automatically sealing records regarding simple possession and other federal nonviolent offenses involving marijuana along with creating a procedure to seal other nonviolent records.

This legislation is both overdue and a step in the right direction. While federal prisons hold a fraction of the nation’s incarcerated people, federal action is important in sending a signal that encourages states to consider similar changes. This is especially important because low-level drug and other felony offenses are mainly the province of states rather than the federal government.  

Criminal records have long term costs to the nearly 70 million Americans who have them. These affect where people can live, what work they can do, what schools they can attend, and more. In effect, they can end up extending the punishment of prison indefinitely. As we continue to move towards a less punitive justice system by taking steps like reintroducing large-scale Pell Grant eligibility for prisoners, we need to be aware just how many people are affected by the criminal justice system. We also need to be aware of how big of an impact something like record sealing can have — allowing people who have had limited involvement with the criminal justice system a chance for a new start in life.

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