How “Second Chance” Laws Could Transform the US Justice System

More than 30 million people in the US are eligible to have their arrest and conviction records cleared — but most people who qualify either can’t afford it or simply don’t know it’s an option. In this gripping talk, second chance advocate and 2023 Audacious Project grantee Sheena Meade makes the case for “clean slate” laws that streamline this complicated process, increasing access to work, housing and education opportunities for millions of people. Learn how her team at the Clean Slate Initiative has already helped pass these laws in six US states and how they’re now working to unlock record clearance for millions more, so everyone can get a true shot at becoming their best selves.

It was like any other peaceful afternoon in my home in 2004. Cartoons were blaring, kids were running around the house, yelling loudly, “VeggieTales” on 100. Well, maybe not so peaceful, but for a young mother, it was perfect. It was like music to my ears. But then there was a loud knock at the door that just disrupted that laughter. And my kids yelled out to me, “Mommy, The police are at the door!” And as I walked up to talk to the police, it’s almost like I walked into the Charlie Brown movie.

Do you all remember the teacher when she just like, “Womp, womp, womp?” Because the words were just getting lost, and I didn’t know what was going on. And I just snapped out of it and I was like, “Oh, shit. I’m about to be arrested.” I was about to be arrested because two months prior I had wrote a check for $87.26 for groceries. And that check had bounced. And let me be clear. There is a thing called prosecutorial discretion, meaning the district attorney did not have to prosecute me, but they did. And totally against my fashion statement, right, the police placed these silver bracelets on my arms. Handcuffs. And that day they handcuffed me in front of my babies. And took me to jail.

You know, luckily I was able to come home pretty quickly because it was my first offense. And I promise, the first thing I did when I got home, I borrowed some money so I could pay that check back. And then I had to borrow some more money to pay back the fees for getting arrested and going to jail because, of course, I was loaded in cash because I was a young mom with four kids bouncing 87-dollar checks. And I just knew that that chapter of my life was closed.

Except it wasn’t, because see, that arrest in that conviction, it remained on my record. And at that moment, I realized that my true sentence had just begun, because you know what? I was no longer allowed to volunteer at my children’s school. I could no longer rent where I want to rent because it is legal for landlords to discriminate against a person with a record. I even faced barriers trying to go to college. And still to this day I am excluded from certain certifications and occupational license. All I could keep asking myself was, “Damn, when will my sentence end?” And sadly, I am not alone.

There are more than 100 million Americans, that is one in three people, who have an arrest or conviction on their record. And get this, more than 94 percent of employers, more than 90 percent of landlords and 72 percent of colleges and universities use background checks to screen out applicants, making it harder for millions of Americans to access jobs, housing and education.

It’s like, damn, how am I supposed to get out and do better if no one will rent to me, no one will hire me, and I can’t even go to school? But I believe, I truly believe that America is a nation of second chances. And I say that because just about every state has laws on the books that allow a person to get their record cleared once they’re eligible. And right now, there are more than 30 million people who are eligible to get their record cleared. But this is where it gets a little crazy.

Less than 10 percent of those people actually get it done. Either they don’t know about it, or, if they do, the process is so bureaucratic, costly and full of red tape. For instance, in some states people have to wait just about five to 10 years just to even qualify to get their record cleared. Then you have to appear in person to petition. That means you need to take time off work, and let’s keep it real, it was hard enough to find a job in the first place.

You have to file a mountain of paperwork and then sometimes you have to pay processing fees up to 500 dollars per charge. And then if you’re smart, you may want to just get a lawyer to help you navigate that whole process. So that means if your crime was being poor like mine, record clearance is not even accessible. I’m looking at some of your faces. You seem really bummed out and discouraged. But I promise I didn’t come all the way to Vancouver, TED, to tell you bad news.

I got some good news. This record clearance problem is solvable and it’s fixable and we’re doing the damn thing. And the key is automatic record clearance for those who are eligible. We are removing all that red tape, and we do that by passing what we call “clean slate” laws. And what that is, is laws that say once a person has remained crime-free for a set period of time and they’re eligible, a set period of time by the state’s definition, remaining crime-free, that their record is automatically cleared. Red tape cut. And this is the beautiful thing about it. We shift the burden from the person who made the mistake to the system that tries to trap them in that mistake.

And y’all, these policies are working. And I know that because I am the proud CEO of the Clean Slate Initiative. And in just the last three years, we’ve been able to help six states pass clean slate laws. I’m talking about red states, blue states and even purple states, OK?

That has resulted in three million people getting their records cleared. That’s millions of people who no longer have to walk around with stigma and shame attached to their name. I even, one time y’all, met this older fellow. I mean, he was in his 80s, but he was a fragile 80-year-old man. I met him in Miami, Florida, at an expungement clinic, and I could not fathom why this man was there.

He was there to get his record cleared. And all I could think about was, he wasn’t there to get a job, find housing. He didn’t want to die being defined by his record. Clean slate laws will even help people like him too. It’s like with a stroke of a governor’s pen, we were able to unlock dreams for millions. And because it’s an Audacious Project, we’re on a pathway to make automatic record clearance a reality. A reality in all 50 states. We’re building a pathway that automatic record clearance is a reality in all 50 states that will unlock second chances for additional 14 million people.

I just want to leave you all with this. And I even invite some of you to close your eyes when I ask you this. Because it’s really important. I want you to think about all the second chances that you’ve received. Whether it was from your teachers, your parents, your community, even your kids. Think about what that felt like. Think about what that did for you. I know for me, it enabled me to be able to change, like turn my pain into purpose. It enabled me to be able to walk into a room and feel seen, not as damaged goods, but as untapped potential. That is the power of a second chance. That is the power of a clean slate. And there’s no greater gift than that. Thank you.

Sheena Meade

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