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Michael Pinard

Excerpted from: Michael Pinard, Criminal Records, Race and Redemption, 16 New York University Journal of Legislation and Public Policy 963 - 997 (2013) ( 169 Footnotes)(Full Article )




“[T]he time never ends for a lot of men.”

Criminal records are omnipresent in the United States. One in three individuals in the U.S. can expect to be arrested by twenty-three years of age. According to one respected study, an estimated sixty-five million adults in the U.S. have a criminal record. At the end of 2011, one in thirty-four adults was under some form Michael Pinardof correctional supervision. These numbers illustrate, in startling ways, the grip of the criminal justice system on individuals, families and communities throughout the United States. The impact is particularly severe on poor individuals of color, who disproportionately interface with the criminal justice system and are subjected to all of its effects, including the unrelenting legal and non-legal burdens that attend a criminal *965 record. These burdens, in turn, disproportionately disrupt families and communities of color.

The effects of criminal records are regularly and graphically apparent to my students in the Reentry Clinic I teach at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. My students explore the myriad legal and non-legal issues that confront individuals with criminal records. Specifically, they identify the various obstacles that burden individuals with criminal records; provide legal representation to individuals attempting to overcome these obstacles; and work on legislative, policy and research projects that aim to minimize barriers to moving past criminal records.

In their work, my students hear firsthand accounts of the inordinate difficulties of moving past a criminal record. Each week, they conduct an expungement workshop at a One-Stop Reentry Center in Baltimore City. The overwhelming majority of individuals who attend the workshops are African-American men and women from Baltimore City. Attendees typically range in age from their early twenties to their late forties and early fifties.

In Maryland, the ability to expunge charges that result in conviction is essentially limited to nine "nuisance" offenses and to individuals who obtain a gubernatorial pardon for a single non-violent offense. Outside of these limited circumstances, only charges that result in a variety of non-conviction dispositions are eligible for expungement. At nearly every workshop, when my students explain that the overwhelming majority of charges that result in conviction cannot be expunged, at least one (and usually more than one) person asks variations of the following questions:

What if my conviction was five years ago, ten years ago, twenty years ago?

*966 What if I was young and immature at the time of my conviction?

What if I was convicted of a misdemeanor?

What if I was living a totally different life back then and I have moved past the conduct that led me into the criminal justice system?

My students have to explain that there is nothing these individuals can do, short of obtaining a gubernatorial pardon--a largely impossible feat -- to remove the conviction from public inspection. Irrespective of an individual's best efforts, the years or decades that may have passed since his or her conviction, and a genuine commitment to remain crime-free, the individual will be shackled to the conviction forever.

This article explores the long-term and often permanent impact of criminal records on individuals of color and, by extension, families and communities of color. Regardless of offense type, the barriers to moving past an interaction with the criminal justice system are often insurmountable. This article focuses on two of the most intractable barriers: the ability to secure housing and employment. Because these two staples of day-to-day life are essential for stability, security and self-worth, the barriers caused by criminal records can prevent individuals from ever moving past their interaction(s) with the criminal justice system.

A range of legal and non-legal obstacles to securing housing and employment can flow from a criminal record. The legal barriers are found in the various laws and regulations that exclude individuals with criminal records from residing in government-assisted housing or *967 from working in a wide array of jobs. The non-legal barriers are policies of landlords and employers that exclude individuals with criminal records from living in their apartments or working for their businesses. These barriers burden individuals who are attempting to move past--or who truly believe they have moved past--their interactions with the criminal justice system. They constitute constant, graphic illustrations that even the most valiant efforts at rehabilitation will never suffice, and that adequate housing and employment will always be out of reach despite the passage of years or even decades since a conviction and despite numerous changes in their lives.

Part I provides a brief overview of race and criminal records. Part II examines the housing and employment barriers confronting individuals with criminal records. Part III details some federal, state and local efforts to ameliorate housing and employment barriers. Part IV argues that a redemptive-focused approach to criminal records is necessary to truly address the disproportionate burdens these records impose on individuals of color and to afford them meaningful opportunities to support their families and strengthen their communities.

* * *

As with all aspects of the criminal justice system, poor individuals of color disproportionately shoulder the weight of a criminal record. Federal, state and local government officials have increasingly recognized the actual and everlasting costs of having a criminal record and are implementing measures that hopefully will ease the housing and employment exclusions that disproportionately burden individuals of color and disrupt their families and communities. However, a redemptive-focused approach to criminal records is necessary to truly compensate for the stigma that plagues individuals of color uniquely. Such an approach recognizes that the only true way to remove the stigma of a criminal record is to remove the criminal record.


Professor, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.