Recidivism and Expungement: How the Revolving Doors of Incarceration Can Be Closed for Good

Expunging criminal records, that is, removing misdemeanor or felony charges from a rap sheet, would be the most tangible form of a second chance, but it isn’t so easy to wipe the slate clean in New York State: criminal records can only be sealed, and even then, this only pertains to certain crimes.

Recidivism and Expungement: How the Revolving Doors of Incarceration Can Be Closed for Good

BROOKLYN, (Workers World Today) – Although recidivism rates are widely acknowledged as the measure of our criminal justice system’s success, many of the ex-prisoners behind these statistics are caught in a revolving door, cycling in and out of prison without any other prospective future in sight.

Recidivism, or when former inmates reoffend and are rearrested, is really defined by the math behind its statewide statistics.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, within three years of release nearly 70% of inmates will be rearrested. This number jumps another 7% after an additional two-year period, to around 76.7%—but most of the infractions will be for low-level, misdemeanor crimes.

Back in 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Task Force on Behavioral Health, along with the Criminal Justice System, found a group of around 400 people who accounted for over 10,000 jail admissions, and over 300,000 collective days in jail during the span of a five-year period. Drug crimes have some of the highest recidivism rates for adult felons, about 62.7% and unsurprisingly many of these former inmates were sent back to jail for some drug-related or parole/probation violation.

These statistics seem to be all the proof needed that, “once a criminal, always a criminal,” as the axiom goes, but what has the city done to combat these numbers, and to help rehabilitate inmates who are otherwise unable to escape this vicious cycle?

Life after prison is a slippery slope. A criminal record of any kind spells almost certain death for job opportunities: just 12.5% of employers will even consider hiring an ex-convict. And the trades that are available are often low-level jobs, rife with menial tasks and very little upward mobility. Ex-cons stuck in this predicament will often realize that playing by society’s rules will get them nowhere fast, and be more tempted to return to a life of crime, something they already have experience in.

Improving the quality of life for former inmates is an integral step in reducing recidivism levels, but this proves to be a Sisyphean task while someone’s criminal record looms overhead. Expunging criminal records, that is, removing misdemeanor or felony charges from a rap sheet, would be the most tangible form of a second chance, but it isn’t so easy to wipe the slate clean in New York State: criminal records can only be sealed, and even then, this only pertains to certain crimes.

Though it’s true that all criminal records areeventually sealed, that’s only after an “appropriate” amount of time. For all intents and purposes these records won’t actually go away on their own. The matter has to be taken into the former inmate’s hands if they want anything to change.

It’s an undue burden of responsibility: an inmate’s legal experience doesn’t usually extend past the defendant’s chair where they had been sentenced. They know next to nothing about filing petitions or motions, and are forced to turn to attorneys in order to help them with the sheaves of paperwork necessary to expunge their records.

Currently, anyone is able to access court information, as it’s in the public record, and view their rap sheet. This is an important first step because it reveals the non-criminal cases and misdemeanors that can eventually be sealed. Remember that charges can be permanently removed if there was no conviction—but that this is a course of action you will have to take on your own, because the courts do not consider it their responsibility to do so.

Besides working on ways to make it easier and more cost-effective for inmates to have their criminal records sealed, New York’s municipal and state governments are working on alternate means of lowering recidivism rates. The most essential form is an emphasis on education during an inmate’s sentence.

The District Attorney of Manhattan, Cyrus Vance Jr., agreed early in 2017, to reallocate $7 million in criminal forfeiture money to pay for such a prison education program. While the scope of this program is quite small (with currently around a 1000 inmates enrolled), the district attorney, along with Governor Andrew Cuomo, hopes to expand the program to 3,500. And for good reason: participating inmates have a recidivism rate of only 4%, a number dwarfed by the 40% recidivism rate of the State’s prison system.

Of course, with the average inmate already estimated to cost an annual $60,000, there has been some dissent that spending any more money on inmates would constitute a gross misuse of taxpayer dollars. However, education has been a proven means of drastically reducing recidivism rates. Surely it’s cheaper to put an inmate through such a program than it is to repeatedly jail them for minor offenses.

But besides education programs, the city is working to offer a myriad of alternatives to incarceration. One such example is newSTART, which seeks to cut down on short-term jail sentences for low-level misdemeanors, specifically for demographics that are most at-risk of recidivating. The homeless, mentally ill, and other groups would be given the option to enter social service programs in exchange for a guilty plea. Before newSTART, inmates weregiven the opportunity to opt for these programs, but with the caveat that failure to complete the program could net them even more jail time.

According to their website, the expanded newSTART program will have diverted more than 1,700 men and women from short jail sentences this year. Over 70% of these individuals have reported that they are unemployed; 40% are homeless. Without these programs, those once incarcerated are at a higher risk of slipping through the cracks and landing back in a jail cell.

Recidivism may be a measure of the criminal justice’s success, but it also highlights its weaknesses, and the cycle of arrest, confinement, release, and re-arrest that traps people within a life of crime and poverty.

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