North Carolina Must Seek Bolder Expungement Reforms to Reduce Recidivism

Originally published here.

North Carolina’s Second Chance Act, while promising, will not reduce the state’s recidivism rate—the rate at which people with past convictions reoffend. At present, approximately 40% of those who are convicted of an offense are arrested again within three years of release. As the studies cited below show, by making expungements more accessible, North Carolina could give people the chance to fully reenter society and avoid getting stuck in a cycle of reoffending.

In December 2020, the Second Chance Act took effect, revising the state’s expungement laws, which allow people to clear their criminal records if they meet certain conditions. The new laws allow records to be cleared for those convicted when they were 16 or 17 and expand the list of crimes that are eligible to be cleared. This progress is not likely to be enough to have a noticeable impact on recidivism. 

Despite this, North Carolina is still one of the most restrictive states when it comes to expungement for minor crimes. A comprehensive study by the attorneys at Rosenblum Law found the state has the seventh-toughest expungement laws in the country. The study used the charge of shoplifting goods valued at $200 as the basis for its rankings, which evaluated the length of time a person needs to wait to file the petition and the cost of filing as two of the criteria. 

One key thing the Second Chance Act failed to address was the waiting period, which is arguably the most critical. Multiple studies, including ones from Harvard University and State University of New York at Albany, show that the ability to get a job has the greatest impact on whether or not a person reoffends. Steady, reliable work is the first step to reintegrating into society and leaving behind one’s past transgressions. 

Unfortunately, a criminal record can severely hinder a person’s ability to get a decent-paying job. It’s estimated that about 96% of employers conduct background checks on job applicants. It’s no wonder that even before the pandemic, the Prison Policy Institute calculated the unemployment rate among the formerly incarcerated to be 27%!

Research also shows that these criminal records disproportionately affect minorities. The NAACP writes that African American job applicants are twice as likely as white applicants to lose a job over the same conviction. This is echoed by two studies from the National Institute for Justice, which found that only 5% of African Americans with convictions received callbacks for jobs, compared to 17% of white Americans with convictions. Latino job applicants face similar hurdles.

Of course, North Carolina’s Department of Public Safety has numerous reentry programs that include job training, job placement, and even help starting a new business. All available data shows these are effective. However, these programs have limited enrollment capacity. Moreover, the state simply cannot train or secure employment for every former inmate. 

Those who are able to get their criminal record cleared are better able to turn their lives around. A University of Michigan Law School study shows that those who received an expungement saw earnings increase by 20% on average, as unemployed former inmates found work and those who were minimally employed secured steadier jobs. 

If most people who reoffend do so within the first three years of their release, then an expungement of the criminal record for nonviolent offenses must happen sooner. This would allow people to reintegrate into society more quickly and effectively rather than falling into an endless cycle of crime. North Carolina politicians must find the courage to reduce the waiting period for an expungement for minor crimes in order to truly reduce recidivism and give people the second chance they truly deserve.  

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