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Nearly 500,000 in jail without a conviction

Nearly half a million people in American jails have not been convicted of a crime. Van Jones blames our bail system. For more on the United States' sprawling criminal justice system, watch the CNN Film "American Jail" Sunday, July 1 at 8 p.m. ET.

Posted: Jun 28, 2018 4:04 PM
Updated: Jun 28, 2018 4:21 PM

We met Ronald Lewis in September 2017 and heard his desire to be a great dad and role model for his children. After being introduced to him by Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, he explained everything he had gone through. More than a decade ago, he was arrested when he warned his brother, who was selling drugs, that the cops were coming. Less than a month later, he was caught when he foolishly tried to shoplift.

These cases resulted in two misdemeanor convictions, with no jail time and probation that was terminated early. He didn't know it at the time, but that one bad month would haunt him for years to come. Even though Lewis matured and took on family responsibilities, his criminal record caused him to be turned away from countless jobs for which he was otherwise qualified. As he has said, "So many doors have been shut in my face, I know what wood tastes like."

Many others like Lewis have had brushes with police that led to their getting arrested, like the two men doing nothing more than waiting at a Philadelphia Starbucks in April. Even if the charges are dropped, the arrest stays on their record, unless they find a lawyer to file an expungement petition. They lose jobs, too. We met Lewis last September after we learned about Pennsylvania's proposed Clean Slate Act, legislation that could help people like Lewis. We could hear the remorse in his voice. It is only common sense to give people a second chance.

According to the Center for American Progress, between 70 million and 100 million — or as many as one in three Americans — have some kind of criminal record. While definitions of "criminal record" vary from someone who has been arrested on a felony charge (the FBI's definition) to someone who has been charged and convicted, a large number of employers conduct criminal background checks that may reveal information that impacts job candidates' chances. For many Americans with any kind of record, the reality they face every single day is the door being shut in their faces.

Nearly 9 in 10 employers say they perform criminal background checks on all or some job candidates, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. One case study shows 4 in 5 landlords use criminal background checks in rental screenings. One in 5 colleges and universities conduct criminal background checks on certain applicants, according to the Center for Community Alternatives.

Even the most minor criminal records, like ones that stem from possession of marijuana, disorderly conduct or being falsely accused, can haunt someone for life, causing them to miss out on access to jobs, housing and education. This is a problem with national scope, but as players who have lived and worked in the Philadelphia community, we are especially aware of its impact in the state of Pennsylvania. Old, minor criminal records contribute to keeping hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians trapped in poverty, with opportunity just out of reach.

Fortunately, there's a plan in the works that would be a game-changer for people with minor criminal records. The Clean Slate Act, proposed legislation that has support from both Republicans and Democrats in the Pennsylvania Legislature, would use technology to automatically seal charges that did not lead to convictions, along with some nonviolent misdemeanor convictions, after 10 years. That means that employers, landlords and schools wouldn't be able to see these minor records. People who need opportunities would be judged by who they really are, not by their old mistakes.

Even better, all Pennsylvanians would benefit from a Clean Slate program. People with minor records would better be able to provide for their families and contribute to their communities. Employers would be able to hire the best people possible, based on their skills and their potential. Neighborhoods where large percentages of people are shut out of the labor force by their records and our entire economy would thrive.

Clean Slate is such a good idea that people from very different perspectives agree on it. Chambers of Commerce from around the state, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, conservative organizations like FreedomWorks, liberal organizations like the Center for American Progress, and many others support the bill. And yes, so does the Players Coalition, of which we are members.

National organizations across the ideological spectrum are supporting this measure because they see its potential to have a substantial positive impact not just in Pennsylvania, but across the country. Efforts to replicate the model are underway in red and blue states as diverse as Michigan, Colorado and South Carolina. Federal policymakers are starting to take note as well. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Delaware, has announced her intention to introduce federal legislation similar to the Pennsylvania bill.

Clean Slate is a simple solution that can help solve a huge problem, but it can't happen without more people getting involved. The Pennsylvania House and Senate have passed separate versions of the bill with overwhelming support. Now we need our legislators to agree on a single final version. Pennsylvanians need to call their legislators, and residents of other states need to ask theirs to start exploring a Clean Slate program where they live and work.

We need to stand up for people like Lewis who need a second chance by calling our representatives and asking them to encourage their leadership to agree on a final bill to send to the governor before they leave for the summer. Clean Slate won't fix everything, but it's a critical step forward.

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