Joshua York, 29, got into trouble with the law when he became homeless as a teenager in Utah.
He racked up several minor charges, such as drug possession and retail theft. But even after York got his life back on track, these accusations followed him with every job application.
âEvery job has reviewed my file once they’ve done a background check. And they’d see a robbery, and they’d say, ‘I’m sorry, there’s just no way.’ It would literally take me out of the race immediately, âYork said.
So he was content with poorly paid manual labor.
About two years ago, he found out that Utah allowed ex-offenders to request the erasure of their records. He requested and received stacks of documents for each charge. With the help of a legal aid lawyer, he filled them out and three months ago the charges were dropped.
York recently completed a background check for a job with American Airlines and has a date to begin training next month.
âI’m in the best place I’ve ever been in my entire adult life,â York said.
One in 3 American adults has a criminal record, whether for a minor misdemeanor, arrest without charge, or a more serious felony.
And in the midst of a labor shortage, with an historic resignation rate among the U.S. workforce, there is a growing effort to modernize and speed up the cumbersome record erasure process. Lawyers say few eligible people take advantage of the opportunity because, in many cases, they may not know or be unable to afford costs, such as hiring a lawyer to help them.
Over the past two years, there has been a growing nationwide effort to pass ‘clean slate’ laws, which call for updating court databases and creating algorithms to automatically erase records of minor criminal offenses. The legislatures of five states, including Utah and Pennsylvania, have passed such measures with bipartisan support.
Business groups also support the legislation. The US Chamber of Commerce has supported a similar idea at the federal level, calling the issue “race and opportunity.”
âBlacks and brunettes in particularâ¦ are the ones who have paid for decades of overcriminalizationâ¦ incarcerating people for failed initiatives, like the war on drugs,â said Sheena Meade, who heads the Clean Slate Initiative.
While businesses are keen on securing a larger pool of talent, they are often reluctant to simply ignore a criminal record when doing a background check, said Jeffrey Korzenik, chief investment strategist at Fifth Third Bank and author of the recently published book “Untapped Talent”, which makes the case for hiring people with criminal records.
âThe question for the business world becomes: what kinds of risks do they take from a legal point of view? What kinds of reputational risks do they take? And that’s where you have a huge social stigma to overcome, âKorzenik said.
Liability risks, even minor ones, are also a concern, he said.
Wiping out people’s records through clean slate laws is something businesses can achieve because it relieves them of having to deal with these issues.
But implementation takes time – court databases need to be updated and computer code needs to be written.
Pennsylvania, which became the first state to enact a clean slate law in 2018, is the only one so far that automatically clears records, with an official tally totaling more than 36 million cases.
âWhat the Pennsylvania Clean Slate Act did, by starting a national trend, was to reverse the burden,â said Rebecca Vallas, senior researcher at the Century Foundation who helped create the clean slate model. âIf you are eligible for erasure of your record, you shouldn’t need to have a law degree or be able to hire someone who has it to be able to erase your record and have a fair chance to get on with your life. “
Utah is expected to begin automatic record clearing by the end of the year.
Noella Sudbury, who helped pass Utah’s 2019 clean slate law, helped implement it.
âRight now we have done the work to identify all eligible people going all the way back to forensic data,â Sudbury said, adding that preliminary estimates indicate that 200,000 people will initially have at least some of their cases closed. .