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'Redeem' Act belies redemption [Commentary]

In May, the European Union's highest court made it easy for ex-offenders to continue their lives without shame. The court ordered Google to delete any online evidence of the checkered pasts of European citizens — from bank robbery to bankruptcy to beating one's wife or children — who want to exercise their "right to be forgotten." As an unemployed ex-con released back into society six months ago, I see benefits to the policy, but I think it goes too far, mostly because the right to have my past forgotten takes away my right to be redeemed.

United States Senators Cory Booker and Rand Paul are trying to introduce a form of the European right to be forgotten stateside in their new Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment (R.E.D.E.E.M.) Act, a bill that would effectively expunge federal non-violent criminal records by sealing them from view of employment background checks. The senators swear that sealing criminal records will untrap ex-offenders from cycles of poverty and incarceration by enhancing their chance to get a job, thereby reducing recidivism.

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The only way to help ex-offenders get jobs is to cultivate trust in employers by showing them examples of ex-offenders who succeeded even after acknowledging their pasts. Americans love to kick criminals, but more than that we love comebacks. And you can't come back unless you've gone.

Well before the European court codified the right to be forgotten, Belgium and German courts were already expunging records automatically after a three-year period for cases that resulted in prison terms of less than six months or fines under 500 euros, according to The Telegraph. They see a "fresh start" as part of the rehabilitative process. Still, after eliminating the electronic paper trail of a person's crime, approximately 44 percent of ex-cons in Germany reoffend, according to a study out of Gottingen University earlier this year. Apparently there is something else at work in an ex-cons mind that no amount of online deletions and forgetfulness can touch.

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Principled society can hide criminal records from the public's gaze all day long. The senators' proposed law fails to recognize that it's the private records that remain in an ex-offender's memory that disable his or her internal compass. Remember that many criminals began their careers as victims, and then turned self-medicating with drugs to avoid confronting their traumas. In short, it's their heads, not the Web, that make ex-offenders reoffend. The secrets are the problem, not what has been exposed.

Even if ex-offenders avoided discrimination and scorn by being able to hide their pasts from either background investigation companies or TMZ, they would not only menace themselves with unresolved guilt and shame, they would also be unable to share the pride of their successes. Just like there is no rebound without a missed shot, no bounce without a backboard and no rally without a rock bottom, there can be no redemption without the acknowledgment of the fall. A phoenix who doesn't die before he rises is just a pigeon.

Besides, deleting and sealing pasts would turn a life like mine into a secret that would rob me of my narrative. How would I account for six years of my life? Incarceration in a Connecticut prison after being convicted of 14 white collar financial crimes transformed me so profoundly that I must reference my life behind bars when I interact with people. In short, you can exonerate me, eject me or even exemplify me, but you can never expunge me or what the penal experience did to my spirit.

The proposed let's-forget-this-ever-happened law of Senators Booker and Paul is innovative, noble and seems sorely needed, as the bias against ex-offenders is extremely strong.

But the R.E.D.E.E.M. legislation is just a vanishing act that tricks people into thinking that a bad past can never be part of a future triumph.

Creating a world where the past is forgotten and everyone's track records are straight and narrow is attractive to everyone, not just the accused or the convicted. But by rejecting the R.E.D.E.E.M. Act and the right to be forgotten we might rise to another level of rights and human understanding: the right to be forgiven, even by ourselves.

Chandra Bozelko is the author of "Up the River: An Anthology" and blogs about her prison experiences in Prison Diaries http://www.prison-diaries.com. Her email is bozelko@prison-diaries.com.

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