Data and a growing number of officials are finding that allowing certain people to expunge their criminal records results in less crime and greater personal responsibility.

Many individuals have been convicted of lower-tier crimes, including drug offenses. While those individuals are now incentivized to stay straight upon their release, that process is hindered by the fact that their criminal record remains public. Good luck getting even entry-level jobs with a criminal record.

When someone who has been a criminal in the past is unable to find gainful employment, they become more likely to again resort to criminal activity. Thus, allowing some individuals to have their records expunged can actually reduce crime because more of those individuals become productive members of society.

Research shows that those with prior convictions are up to 50% less likely to receive a callback on a job application, but within a year of having their record expunged (sealed), they are 11% more likely to be employed and earn 22% more.

Currently, those with criminal records can petition the court to have a record expunged, but that can cost $1,500 to $5,000 (and more) because one must hire a lawyer. Since those released from prison typically have no income and already owe significant fines and fees associated with their conviction, few can afford the petition process. It’s estimated just 6% of those eligible to petition for expungement do so.

If Oklahoma provided for automatic expungement, as is done in several other states, many more individuals will become productive, income-earning members of society despite bad mistakes in their past.

By the way, those convicted of crimes like murder and rape are not eligible for expungement, and expungement does not keep law enforcement officials from accessing prior records.

Erin Brewer, owner of the Red Pin Bowling and Diner in Oklahoma City’s Bricktown district, hired roughly 200 people with prior convictions during the life of that business. She only had to fire two and said many of those employees proved to be no more of a “gamble” than “any other employee who came to me off the street.”

Jesse Kelley, national campaign manager for the Clean Slate Initiative, says research shows the recidivism rate for people who have their records expunged is “so low that after a period of time they actually pose a lower crime risk than the general population as a whole.”

Free markets, limited government, individual initiative and personal responsibility are the keys to a flourishing society. But if our current system indirectly incentivizes people to return to crime rather than remain law-abiding and apply individual initiative and personal responsibility by working to provide for themselves and their family members, it clearly needs reform. Automatic expungement for certain, lower-tier convictions is one way to ensure prison results in true rehabilitation and not a revolving door.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (www.ocpathink.org).

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