When ex-offenders deserve forgiveness on their records

With nearly a third of adults having criminal records, one study looks at the effects of hiding the records of those who don’t reoffend. The results show the need for further work in offering such forgiveness.

Dan Marschka/LNP via AP
From left, Kevin Polite, Christian Maldonado, Ryan Ocasio, and Eddie Patton look through their renovation project, a home in Lancaster, Pa. Polite, who was paroled from state prison in 2014, is part of a job-training program to give individuals with a criminal record a second chance at employment. Since November, Polite has been a Community Action Partnership employee in the nonprofit's new, four-man remodeling crew.

Scholars who study forgiveness often say that it can benefit both the forgiver and the forgiven, assuming the forgiven has paid a price for his or her wrongdoing and shows contrition. Forgiveness, in other words, is a two-way street toward healing a relationship. The idea has now been put to the test in a research report on what is an increasingly popular type of government forgiveness: allowing many ex-offenders to control public knowledge of their past crime.

The research, released this week by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, measured the effects of two recent laws in Massachusetts. One, commonly known as “ban the box,” prevents employers from inquiring about criminal history on an initial application for work. The other reduced the number of years that ex-offenders must wait to have their criminal records “sealed” from public view. (Those who committed violent crimes were excluded.)

The results of these measures have so far been mixed, showing only a modest improvement in the reintegration of ex-offenders. Their employment rate was slightly worse yet their recidivism, or the rate of committing another crime, went down. The report asks for further steps to help those ex-offenders who stay clean to avoid a lifetime stigma for past crimes.

At the least, further research is needed to confirm which of the current laws have the desired effect on ex-offenders in restoring their bonds with the larger community. After tough-on-crime laws of the 1980s and ’90s, dozens of states and cities have passed measures to restrict access to criminal records, even expunging a record. The main reason: More than 30 percent of the American adult population has a criminal record, making it difficult for them to work, go to school, or receive government benefits. Also, the internet has broadened access to such records, which only worsens the effects on ex-offenders who have paid their debt with a court sentence.

“Since 2013, almost every state has taken at least some steps to chip away at the negative effects of a criminal record on an individual’s ability to earn a living, access housing, education and public benefits, and otherwise fully participate in civil society,” according to the national nonprofit Collateral Consequences Resource Center.

If the justice system in the United States includes the idea of redemption for ex-convicts – and not only deterrence of crime through punishment – government leaders must figure out which laws on public access to criminal records can both protect society and restore the dignity of ex-offenders, especially those with no violent past. People need not be defined by past mistakes if amends are made – and then forgiveness is forthcoming in the form of a second chance.

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