While the needs of the Baltimore City can seem vast and overwhelming at times — particularly within the justice system — many don’t realize that there are programs that exist within city government that can create meaningful change for communities. Several years ago at the Office of the Public Defender, we began an expungement clinic in Baltimore City, as well as an annual expungement event for the community; the most recent of which was held last week.
The clinic works with people with criminal records who are eligible to have their records expunged — a court ordered process in which an arrest is erased in the eyes of the law. Since its inception, and thanks to the support of the Abell Foundation, the effort, known as “Back to the Neighborhood: How to Succeed with a Criminal Record” helps thousands of people gain a second chance to succeed.
These types of programs are especially important for communities of color, which are most negatively impacted by the justice system. In Maryland, African Americans make up 30 percent of the overall population, but account for 72 percent of the prison population. The same disparities that exist in the justice system are mirrored in job opportunities for individuals of color. Because African Americans are disproportionately represented in the Maryland justice system, they are more negatively affected by the impact of a criminal record on employment opportunities. According the Justice Policy Institute, the cost to lock up one person in Maryland could instead buy job training for seven people. Maryland taxpayers spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year to incarcerate residents; investing that money differently would yield positive outcomes for individuals, families and communities.
Not only does having a job mean people are able to provide for themselves, but it also means they are also able to meet other obligations, such as paying child support and paying fines, fees and restitution that they may owe. This makes individuals less likely to engage in illegal activities to support themselves. And being involved in a positive activity like work increases a person’s engagement with their community and reduces the likelihood of re-offending.
Back to the Neighborhood: How to Succeed with a Criminal Record was designed to remove justice system related hurdles — such as a criminal record — that create barriers to employment for returning citizens and others who come in contact with law enforcement and end up with a criminal record. In doing so, we are also working on the back end of the justice system to mitigate its disproportionate impact on people of color.
The work that we accomplish each year is not limited to those who are actively seeking assistance. We have been fortunate to partner with the Justice Policy Institute over a number of years to host re-entry forums, where we emphasized that Maryland’s subsequent conviction policy, barring expungement of an eligible record if the holder is convicted of another crime before applying, is a major hurdle. The findings from the events helped to inform legislators in Annapolis of a situation that was preventing so many returning citizens from successfully obtaining employment. As a result of these efforts and through the leadership of the non-profit Job Opportunity Task Force, the Maryland Second Chance Act was passed in 2015.
This new law helped pave the way for individuals with subsequent convictions — the major driver behind failed expungement — to now have a meaningful opportunity to get their records expunged. With this change, many people who were unsuccessful in getting records expunged could now petition the court with a much greater chance for getting their record expunged, and therefore, an increased chance that they will be successful in getting a job and staying crime free.
Last week, we assisted several hundred people with their cases in just one morning. This should be a model for how to take expungement and employment assistance services back to the same neighborhoods that have been adversely impacted by the justice system. Removing barriers to employment can be a cost effective and successful approach to reducing the likelihood that people returning from prison will re-offend, which in the end will make our communities safer and benefit all of us.
Mary-Denise Davis is chief attorney at the Central Booking and Intake Center at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender located in Baltimore City. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.