By Taylor Knopf
Public health experts argue that medical care — such as doctor visits and the quality of care they provide — is only one small factor that influences a person’s overall health.
Social, economic and environmental factors play a bigger role in a person’s health outcomes, they argue. Housing, employment, education, transportation and access to healthy food are known as “social determinants of health.”
But people with criminal records face barriers to accessing some key health determinants, such as housing and employment. The “Second Chance Act” moving through the North Carolina legislature would help remove some barriers for people with certain nonviolent criminal records and make it easier for these folks to access the things that make them healthier.
The bill would automatically expunge people of criminal charges that were dismissed or found “not guilty” after Dec. 1, 2019.
People with certain misdemeanor and felony charges that took place when a person was 16 or 17 years old would be eligible for expungement under the Raise the Age law that was passed in 2017.
The bill would also expand the types of offenses eligible for expungement after a certain amount of time of good behavior. It would allow people with nonviolent misdemeanor convictions to petition for expungement after five years, and those with nonviolent felony convictions to do so after 10 years.
While these expunged records would not be available to the public, nothing in the proposed legislation would prevent district attorneys and the courts from considering a prior conviction if a person breaks the law again.
“Nobody should have to go out and hire a lawyer to get their record expunged. Nobody should have to incur that cost, that debt, and that expense,” said primary bill sponsor Sen. Floyd McKissick (D-Durham) during a press conference Tuesday after a gathering outside the legislative building in Raleigh where hundreds of advocates rallied for the Second Chance Act. “Under the proper circumstances — as this bill provides for — that person can initiate and expunge.”
In North Carolina, 95 percent of inmates return to society after their incarceration and the majority will look for housing and jobs.
“That person, if they have been found guilty and paid their debt to society, is entitled to a day of redemption,” McKissick said. “They shouldn’t have to bear that scarlet letter the rest of their lives. They need to have opportunities for employment, for housing, to provide for themselves.”
Lynn Burke, an immigration lawyer in Knightdale, said the Second Chance Act would greatly impact her law firm.
In the 1980s, Burke served two years in prison for forgery and larceny conviction, and that criminal record prevents her from practicing criminal law in N.C.
“Unfortunately, most women who have served time in prison are left criminal convictions and are never reunited with their children,” she said during Tuesday’s press conference. “Furthermore, even if they do get their children back, it’s almost impossible to keep them because with a felony conviction because no one will give you a job.”
Her story is different, though. She was able to reunite with her four children after her release, return to her former housing situation, and start a small business delivering flowers.
Once her children all graduated from college, Burke said she decided to do what no one thought she could: She went for a social work degree and then her law degree.
“Once someone has been held accountable in a professional manner, they should have their liberty restored and be provided an opportunity to rejoin the community with dignity,” Burke said.
“Many individuals find themselves released from prison but locked out of work, education and a place to live. The majority of ex-offenders who are recently released from prison have nowhere to go and shelters are usually full, and most end up sleeping under bridges or under abandoned buildings.”
“There is growing recognition that social and economic factors shape individuals’ ability to engage in healthy behaviors,” according to a Kaiser Family Foundation policy brief on social determinants of health. If someone has access to safe housing, a job and fresh food, research shows she will likely live longer and be healthier than an individual who does not, the report says.
Strong conservative support
The Second Chance Act has a considerable amount of support from conservatives, such as Mark Holden of Koch Industries and David Safavian, general counsel for the American Conservative Union. It also has a bipartisan group of primary sponsors in the state House and Senate.[sponsor]
“[A criminal record] means that you’re 50 percent less likely to get a call back for a job interview. And even if you get the job, your salary is between 10 and 40 percent less than a peer that might not have that scarlet “F” on them,” said Safavian, adding that he too had a criminal record.
Advocates for the bill have been trying to get expungement legislation passed since 2011. Some have had support from Republicans, such as former Sen. Tommy Tucker (R-Waxhaw), but they say this level of conservative support is new.
McKissick said he expects a strong favorable vote from his colleagues.