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A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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Unlocking Futures: Why Missouri’s Clean Slate initiative offers hope


Think of the worst thing you ever did. Then imagine being punished for it for the rest of your life.

Half a million Missourians have criminal records stemming from nonviolent, nonsexual offenses, including some arrests without conviction or jail time. Missouri statutes have provisions for expunging many of these minor records after a person has served their time and had no further incidents for a set number of years, but the vast majority of those eligible for this relief are unable to navigate the current expensive and complex petition process. The result? 518,000 Missourians with criminal records that the law already says can be expunged are barred from employment and housing opportunities.

This is a recipe for recidivism. We want formerly incarcerated people to return to their communities ready to become productive citizens, to support their families and participate fully in their communities, but the stigma of a criminal record follows them anywhere a background check is used. The Missouri Department of Corrections estimates that 69 percent of those who are unable to find full-time employment return to prison within two years. This makes no sense. It is not fair to former offenders or their families; it penalizes employers who are looking for workers, and it costs taxpayers to have a revolving door in Missouri prisons.

Where is the balance between punishment and ruining lives?

Members of Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice, a St. Louis education and advocacy organization, began to study this issue three years ago. We learned about the multiple obstacles that face individuals who return to their communities after a stay in prison. We heard the life stories of people who have struggled because they carry the heavy baggage of a criminal record. We discovered that people continue to pay for the same crime, over and over, rather than being able to move on and renew their lives. And, we learned about the Clean Slate initiative, a bipartisan effort that would use technology to automate the process of record sealing for those eligible to have their records sealed. Violent crimes, sexual offenses, serious felonies and hate crimes are not eligible for expungement under statute or proposed Clean Slate legislation.

Since 2018, 12 states, recognizing that up to 40 percent of their adult populations were hindered by criminal records, have enacted Clean Slate legislation with wide bipartisan support. Pennsylvania was the first state to adopt automated expungement. In Philadelphia, prior to the passage of the Clean Slate Act, more than 1,000 formerly incarcerated people who had their records expunged through gubernatorial pardons were followed for a decade by two studies, one on recidivism and the other on economic benefits. Published in 2020, the studies revealed impressive economic benefits to individuals and neighborhoods and an extremely low (1 percent) rate of recidivism. They concluded that increasing expungements could provide no-cost economic investment across the state, especially in areas most in need of growth. Most importantly, the studies also revealed that there were no public safety concerns.

In Missouri, Women’s Voices is supporting Missouri Senate Bills 763 and 1161 and House Bills 2108 and 2555, also referred to as Clean Slate bills. We believe this legislation is smart on crime, makes good business sense, and will boost local and state economies.

Many of the half million eligible Missourians will have more opportunities to earn a decent living, obtain stable housing and support their families. Employers will be able to expand their workforce with qualified people who are eager and able to work. Missouri will save taxpayer dollars by bringing more people into the workforce and interrupting the cycle of recidivism and repeated incarceration. Communities will be safer as more people are able to obtain employment and provide for their families. And Missouri courts and prosecutor’s offices will no longer be burdened with the costs of record-sealing petitions.

If approved by the Missouri legislature, Clean Slate would automate the process of expungement for eligible records. It makes sense. Those who qualify for record sealing have earned a 2nd chance. It is above all, the right and fair thing to do, because a criminal record should not be a life sentence to poverty.

Mary Schuman and Susan Glassman are co-chairs of the Criminal Legal System Reform task force for Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice. They live in University City.



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