In keeping with society’s concern for keeping the recidivism rate low, we must ask: “How can people support themselves after prison?” Even a minor brush with law enforcement may hurt one’s chances with potential employers. Besides the question of whether an ex-convict can persuade someone to hire him, under current law (21 U.S.C. §862a), anyone convicted of a felony involving drug possession, use, or distribution is not eligible for TANF (temporary assistance for needy families) or SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program).

Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) recently introduced a bill to improve the prospects of non-violent ex-convicts. It’s titled the “Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment Act of 2014” or the “REDEEM Act” (S. 2567). This bill proposes qualifications and procedures so that someone can get their federal record sealed regarding a certain offense (whether a conviction or only an arrest). In this way, for most purposes, everyone will treat the episode as if it never happened; the person cannot be charged with perjury or making false statements for ignoring it. To qualify for sealing:

  • The petitioner must not have too many convictions (sealed or not).
  • The offense in question must not be a sex offense and not a violent offense.
  • The offense could have taken place at any time in the past; it is not limited to offenses that occur after this bill is enacted.

Sealing would involve a court hearing so that a judge has discretion over whether a person’s record should be sealed.

The REDEEM Act, if passed, would introduce a pair of similar procedures for juveniles. If a juvenile is found delinquent in the case of a non-violent offense before they turn 15, then that record is expunged when they turn 18. If such an offense happens between the ages of 15 and 18, the juvenile can petition for it to be expunged (following a similar proceeding for a court hearing to have a record sealed). If a juvenile is arrested but criminal proceedings are not pursued, or if the proceedings end with the case being dismissed, that is also expunged from their record.

Expungement is different from sealing in that expunging the record means is physically and electronically destroyed so that no one can use it. Sealed records, in contrast, may be accessed only under specific circumstances, such as applications for government security clearance and law enforcement. (However, there is an exception: “If the Attorney General determines that disclosure is necessary to serve the interests of justice, public safety, or national security,” then the contents of sealed records may be divulged.)

The second provision for juveniles that the REDEEM Act would introduce is that records for being judged delinquent for nonviolent offenses are automatically sealed three years after the juvenile finishes their punishment (be that detention, probation, or supervision), as long as:

  1. The juvenile has not been convicted of a crime (or found delinquent in juvenile court) since, and
  2. They do not have criminal (or delinquent) proceedings going on at that three-year anniversary.
    This sealing happens automatically, without the juvenile needing to petition; they may petition for the record to be sealed before the three years are up.

Besides that, the REDEEM Act would also (if passed) forbid solitary confinement in general for juveniles. Even if a juvenile is physically threatening harm to oneself or others, the bill gives specific procedures, physical requirements of the room used, and time limits for confining a juvenile in a room alone. After the time limit, then the person must be transferred to another facility that can handle the matter.

As mentioned earlier, presently those convicted on felony drug charges are ineligible for TANF and SNAP benefits. The REDEEM Act would amend 21 U.S.C. §862a to make ineligible only those convicted of a felony involving distribution of drugs, not just possession or use. Even then, someone convicted as a distributor would still be eligible if:

  1. The Court determines their offense is “rationally related to a substance abuse disorder;”
  2. Either (a) the Court decides they do not need substance abuse treatment, or (b) the felon gets into in a substance abuse program (even if they are on a waiting list) or completes such a program, and
  3. He or she “complies with all obligations imposed by the court.”

Besides that, the REDEEM Act would also adds employment services to the list of federal benefits that cannot be denied under §862a.

The REDEEM Act would also give incentives for states to be no harsher than the federal government is in the above matters. In order to encourage states to have similar procedures for sealing records of nonviolent offenses (adult or juvenile), expunging certain juvenile offenses, TANF and SNAP eligibility rules, and so forth, and to discourage states from sending offenders under 18 to adult criminal court, states with procedures similar to or more generous than the federal government’s would be given preference for COPS (community policing) grants. (Presently, certain crimes can result in a juvenile’s case being sent to adult criminal court in, e.g., California, Florida, Illinois, New York, Tennessee, and Texas, according to Gabrielle Hollingsworth.)

In addition to all this, in order to prevent inaccuracies in background checks hindering someone from being hired, the Attorney General would be directed to check for inaccurate or incomplete records in the FBI background check system every two years. When the Attorney General finds inaccurate records, they must notify the offices that request and use those records so that the inaccuracies are not passed on until they are corrected.

Another bill Sen. Paul introduced recently also keeps ex-convicts more integrated with mainstream society. The “Civil Rights Voting Restoration Act of 2014” (S. 2550) proposes that U.S. citizens can still vote in elections for federal offices even if they have been convicted of a non-violent criminal offense (either state or federal), once they have finished their jail time and probation. (If their term of probation is a year or longer, then they are not eligible to vote until a year after they finish probation.) It is difficult to interpret whether the bill means that non-violent offenders are eligible to register to vote on the specified day, or whether they will be allowed to register to vote when they show that the federal election is scheduled after they would be eligible.

It is difficult to be very excited about these bills because they must pass through Congress before this session ends in less than six months, and other criminal justice reform bills introduced this session have been waiting for many months longer. These measures might also be substantially amended before they reach the president’s desk. Although these ideas would help many people return to normal life after doing their time, as always, much depends on how well the federal bureaucracy would implement these measures if they did pass.

UPDATE: S. 2567 and S. 2550 were not enacted. Click here for similar proposals introduced in 2015, or for other developments, see a list of all our posts on bills in Congress.


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