Have you ever just messed up? I'm not talking about leaving your coffee on the roof of your car. I mean a major, life-altering mistake. Think fiscal cliff-level personal disaster. Now imagine paying for the mistake with jail time — then continuing to pay for the rest of your life by being shut out of every new opportunity to reestablish yourself.
That's the life of Marylanders with prior misdemeanor convictions right now, and the General Assembly appears to want them to keep living their nightmares, while taxpayers foot the bill.
When someone commits a misdemeanor, they spend anywhere between 24 hours to 12 months in jail. This is supposed to be the price they pay for breaking the law. However, the real price is much higher: a criminal record that follows them for life. When they apply for a job, try to rent an apartment, or enroll in an educational program, they're reminded of the conviction.
When people with prior convictions can't find jobs, they often end up homeless, with no access to health care, healthy food or safe surroundings. When they get sick living on the streets, they end up in the emergency room with no insurance for expensive urgent care, all at public expense. So now citizens have paid for jail time, health care, and rising insurance costs as a result of one bad decision.
You may ask: "Why can't they just get a job?" But it's not that easy — and Maryland delegates seem to like it that way.
Maryland House Bill 1006 was introduced for the fourth time in the 2013 General Assembly session. The legislation proposed the "shielding" of nonviolent misdemeanors if a person goes three years without committing another crime. It also would have prohibited employers, schools and licensing programs from asking about criminal activity on preliminary applications. Many organizations, like Healthcare for the Homeless and the Maryland chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, got behind the legislation, with its promise of hope for those marginalized for past convictions. The idea was to let those who want to live as law-abiding citizens have an even chance of getting hired instead of consistently bearing a scarlet letter. After four revisions, the legislation that was finally approved is a sad shell of the policy that could have gotten people off of the streets and into homes and jobs.
First, the House of Delegates made sure employers could still access all information — defeating one major purpose of the bill. Then the delegates specified which misdemeanors would be considered for shielding. Delegates rustled up a list of about 20 crimes that could be shielded, and then specified that those who committed their crimes after age 26 were out of luck.
That might make sense if everyone 27 and older lived a perfect life and never disturbed the peace or got intoxicated in public. But why should a 27-year-old who got drunk in public one time have to live with that forever, while those arrested at 25 for prostitution could move on with their lives, protected by a shielded record, after three years of law-abiding behavior? The age specification just doesn't make sense. Legislators should have allowed all Marylanders the chance to seek better housing, employment and schooling opportunities — not just those in a certain age bracket.
What, after all, is the ultimate goal? Is it to get people off the streets, employed and actively participating in our communities as law-abiding citizens? Or are we looking to further penalize those who have already paid the price in jail time?
Our citizens who have made mistakes but not engaged in violence need to be encouraged to come back to law-abiding life no matter when they had a lack in judgment. If people have no hope of independent life with a job and reliable housing, there is no true motivation to stop selling marijuana, stop stealing, or stop doing whatever their misdemeanor of choice happened to be. As a result, everyone continues to pay the price for a debt that was supposedly paid in jail.
Cursha Pierce-Lunderman is an Army veteran and Army spouse living in Fort Meade. She is completing her masters in social work at the University of Southern California Virtual Campus. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.