By: Kristin B. ’17
Over the past decade, we have seen a vast increase in opiate use in New Jersey, and the United States as a whole. The heroin epidemic is one of the most talked about issues, spreading articles, mug shots, arrest stories and obituaries all over the news and social media. Substance abuse in itself is a major issue, one that our Governor has taken action to address in many ways. We have moved more towards a treatment model, than a punitive model when drug addicts get arrested; and we have taken action to improve insurance coverage for substance abuse treatment.
Most individuals who are addicted to drugs have been arrested, or have at least come close to it. Individuals who are addicted to drugs risk getting arrested each day they get high. Every time they purchase drugs, every time they drive in possession of drugs, every time they drive under the influence, they are risking arrest. Other common arrests for individuals addicted to drugs include loitering, shoplifting, theft and forgery. These crimes are viewed as non-violent. Individuals arrested on these charges would likely be eligible for the New Jersey Drug Court program. Violent crimes, that would exclude individuals from Drug Court, include possession of weapons, or armed robbery.
Individuals who used to be addicted to drugs but are now recovery often face adversity when seeking employment. Most jobs perform background checks during the hiring process, which can either lead to a conversation with the employer, or no further interviews. Some individuals will choose to stay in a “dead-end” job for fear of not being able to get anything better if they have a criminal record. Sen. Cory Booker has proposed the Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment (REDEEM) Act. At this time, the REDEEM Act has been read twice and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary. However, this is not enough.
What the REDEEM Act sets out to do is create a pathway to federally seal nonviolent adult ex-offenders, in addition to automatically sealing juveniles records, raise the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18, restrict room confinement of juveniles who are incarcerated, and lift the lifetime SNAP and TANF bans on nonviolent drug offenders (The REDEEM Act, 2014). Although the REDEEM Act is heading in the right direction, something needs to be done now about access to criminal record expungement.
One reason why individuals do not get their record expunged is because it is expensive. The average cost of a lawyer for expungment of a criminal record is $1,50 and if an individual is working a minimum wage job because their criminal record has held them back from other employment opportunities, it is difficult to save money for an expungement. Another reason why individuals do not get their record expunged is because it is a time consuming process. It consists of sending letters and certified mailings to the state police and each municipality where a criminal offense was documented, gathering all information about the arrest and court cases, proposing expungement to the municipalities and the judge, and securing agreements of the record sealing.
The REDEEM Act is proposing to automatically seal records of juveniles, and Governor Christie has set forth the automatic expungement of individuals who complete the New Jersey Drug Court program (S.P. Sullivan, 2016); however there are so many individuals who have been arrested for crimes as adults, and are not eligible for the same free resource of record sealing. I would like to propose an act for individuals with current criminal records to be able to seek record expungement just the same as juveniles or Drug Court participants.
Because expungment is a time consuming and expensive process, we need to propose a plan to allow everyone access. First, I would propose the automatic five-year sealing of criminal records specifically for an employment background check. This would mean that if an individual has not been arrested in at least five years, they would be able to pass an employment background check. If the record had not been expunged, further investigation would allow an employer to gain information regarding criminal background, but if an individual has not been arrested in five years or more, I believe that shows a change in character. Second, I would propose reduced expungement rates offered by either social workers who are well versed in criminal justice or lawyers. Cheaper rates would provide access to many more individuals who are looking to seal their record and secure better employment for their future.
I have personal experience with the expungement process. My name is Kristin and I’m a recovering heroin addict. My journey in recovery started when I got sober June 26, 2010. Before getting sober, I was arrested three times. With criminal charges like forgery and possession of drugs and paraphernalia, I knew my job opportunities were limited. I was 20 years old, and I felt that my life was over. I thought that I would not have a chance at a successful future, and this was devastating because I knew that I was smart and capable. I knew that if any employer met me, they would want me to work for them. I am a quick learner, self-motivated, and a teachable young lady. But I was held back by my criminal record and lack of experience.
I knew that the option of expungment would be available after five years, so I took several smart actions. I got a job serving at a small Italian restaurant where I worked for the next six years. I knew that a steady job would look good on a resume. And then I went back to school. I had stopped attending college after my sophomore year because of my drug addiction. I finished my undergraduate degree at TCNJ and then applied for my MSW here at Rutgers. I graduated on May 15, 2017 with my Master’s and a sealed record, making my job opportunities essentially endless.
I am not unique. I have the story of so many other individuals that are trying to get clean and sober, or are in recovery. It’s true that some of this is a waiting game. As a social worker, it is important to encourage clients to continue to make decisions that will benefit their future employment endeavors. If finding employment is an issue, there are lists of employers that hire individuals who have been convicted of felonies. Providing clients with access to these lists will allow them to gain confidence and self-esteem while working towards expungement. In addition, working for an employer that hires felons may present opportunities to move up in the company, creating more marketable skills or experiences for resume building.
Know your resources. Help direct your clients to employment opportunities, as well as lawyer services when ready. Build up your clients, arm them with information and encourage them to work hard to achieve their goals. The only reason why I am where I am today is because of the ongoing encouragement and support from those around me who believed that I was more than a drug addict. And today, I am. I am a social worker.
As part of the HBSE: Poverty, Inequality, Discrimination & Public Policy course, students wrote blog posts about important policy issues. Over the course of the summer, these posts will be shared both through the Rutgers Social Work Policy newsletter and here, on the school's blog. To sign up for the newsletter, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.