Raleigh, N.C. — Advocates for people with criminal records are calling for changes to state laws they say make it nearly impossible for former convicts to become productive members of society once they've finished their sentences.
In the weeks leading up to crossover, state lawmakers moved a series of bills that would make small changes to expunction laws and facilitate re-entry. But two of the biggest proposals didn't get hearings at all.
One, House Bill 399, would raise the age for some adult crimes from 16 to 18 years old. It is not subject to crossover because it appropriates money. It has bipartisan support. The other, House Bill 612, known as "Ban the Box," would have directed state and local governments to stop using a job application question about an applicant's criminal record as an automatic disqualification for further consideration. It did not have bipartisan support, and it did not survive the crossover deadline.
Still, Democratic lawmakers said Tuesday that they intend to continue the fight to help make it easier for people with criminal records to find employment.
"These are people with unfavorable backgrounds who need another chance, who need an opportunity to get back into their communities," said Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland, the sponsor of "Ban the Box." "We do believe in a second chance because all of us, if truth be told, have had some second chances in life."
Former prosecutor Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, stressed that he believes in consequences for crimes, adding, "it's possible to go too far, it's possible to destroy people's lives for no good reason."
"It used to be that the worst part of being convicted of a minor criminal offense was you'd have to spend a few days in jail. Now, that's dwarfed by the long-term financial consequences that keep people from being able to provide for themselves," Jackson said. "Look at the economic cage we've locked them into. Ask yourself if there isn't a more reasonable approach."
In 2011, Durham became the first city in North Carolina to "ban the box" on job applications. Daryl Atkinson, senior attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said the results have been overwhelmingly positive.
In 2011, 2.3 percent of hires in Durham city government were people with past criminal records. In 2012, it was 4.4 percent, rising to 9 percent in 2013 and 15 percent in 2014.
"The sky didn't open up and rain down plagues," Atkinson said, adding that the city has seen "no increases in workplace crime, and none of those folks have been terminated because they've committed an offense."
Atkinson stressed that not every job is appropriate for someone with a felony record, but he said in many instances employers are using a criminal record of any kind as a blanket disqualifier for any job.
"They're not making that individual assessment to see if there's a direct relationship between the underlying record and the job," he said, noting that Koch Industries recently banned the box on applications for all its subsidiaries and calling it "the moral thing to do."
About 1.6 million North Carolinians – roughly one out of six – have criminal records. Across the country, some 700,000 inmates will be released from prisons every year for the next 10 years, a higher number than ever before.
"When we think about the turmoil that's going on around the country, one of the common denominators is communities feeling shut out of opportunity," Atkinson said.
Re-entry advocate Dennis Gaddy agreed.
"If you make it hard to do the right thing, you make it easy to do the wrong thing," Gaddy said.