Meet the Congresswoman Trying to Remove Barriers to Opportunity for People With Records

This article was published by TalkPoverty.org.

Today, as many as 1 in 3 Americans have some type of criminal record — many convicted of only minor offenses, and some having only arrests that never led to a conviction. But even a minor record can create lifelong barriers to employment, housing, education, and more, relegating many people with records and their families to a lifetime in poverty.

That’s why a bipartisan coalition in Pennsylvania has worked for more than two years to pass first-in-the-nation “clean slate” legislation that would allow minor nonviolent records to be automatically sealed once an individual remains crime-free for a set period of time. A bill was unanimously approved in the Pennsylvania Senate, 50-0, earlier this year, and it is expected to clear the House soon. Gov. Tom Wolf (D) has said he will sign the legislation into law. Even the Philadelphia Eagles are vocally supporting the bill.

And now there is movement to bring clean slate to the halls of Congress. At the recent #UnlockingOpportunity conference in Washington, I spoke with Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D) — Delaware’s first woman and first person of color elected to Congress — about her run for office and the prospect of clean legislation at the federal level.

Rebecca Vallas: I’d love to hear from you about your background and why you’ve decided to take on criminal justice reform and re-entry.

Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester: First, I never ran for office in my life. But in 2014, my husband ruptured his Achilles tendon on a business trip and blood clots went to his heart and lungs and he passed away. It changed everything for me.

I’m typically a very joyful person. Every job I’ve ever had I brought joy to it — from working as a summer youth employment coordinator, to working in the office of then-Congressman Tom Carper as an intern, to being a case worker and working on Social Security Disability and housing and other issues, to being Delaware’s secretary of labor. But when Charles passed, it made me question why am I here. What’s my purpose? And that election year I saw so many people who looked either sad or mad, who had a feeling of loss. Whether they lost their job or home during the housing crisis, or a child to gun violence, it just felt heavy. And the people who were running for office … I was like, “I’m already sad, and y’all are bringing me down.”

One or two encounters with the law should not stop you from supporting yourself or your family.

So, I decided to run. And I was debating Ivy League lawyers. People would comment on blogs that I looked like a deer in the headlights — because I was a deer in the headlights, I was scared to death. But the more stories I heard from people in my state, the more compelled I felt. And I remember one day at a campaign event in the park a guy was talking about the fact that he had gotten out of prison, and no matter how hard he tried he could not find a job. It reminded me of my own family history — my uncles and cousins in Philadelphia who went in and out of the prison system. And so this whole concept of clean slate rang true because your one or two encounters with the law should not stop you from supporting yourself or your family. This issue touches people’s ability to buy a home, to rent an apartment, to just live.

When I heard about Pennsylvania’s legislation, it was a no-brainer for me that this is an issue that cuts across parties. And so we can announce here that I will be introducing federal clean slate legislation.

Thank you. And I’d love to hear from you how a federal clean slate law could remove barriers not just for people with records but for their children and for their families.

We all know the impact that a parent going through a criminal justice system has on families. An article in The Atlantic magazine is a perfect example. It’s about a woman who was 57 years old, who was a grandmother. This charge had been following her for 38 years and stopping her from getting a job. But this legislation is saying it shouldn’t be hard for you to clean your record when you’ve served your time, some time has gone by, and it was a nonviolent offense. Anything that gets rid of the barriers for people to live, go to school, have a job, rent or own a home, that’s the goal of this legislation is to clean the slate so that you can live your life.

What are the chances of seeing something actually move through Congress?

We can at least try to find common ground. I already have in mind a [Congressperson] who’s got a criminal justice background, who will probably seem way to the other political extreme of me, but who can also provide credibility. I believe that we can get this done — and it doesn’t even cost money. The fact that it could possibly save money and help the economy and help people’s lives I think makes it a win-win-win.

I also want to leave everyone with a message of encouragement. That no matter what you see swirling around you, stay focused. I was a dancer as a kid, and we’d do pirouettes. And people would say, “How can you spin and not fall?” It’s because you would focus on one spot, even though everything is spinning around you. We’re gonna make it through all of this swirl.