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'Clean slate' proposal better than prescribing 'poison pills'

IN A BLACK AND WHITE world, the bad guys are locked up in prison and the good guys are on the outside, living blemish-free lives.

But the world has never been black and white, and the issue of who gets locked up in jail has become increasingly gray over the past few decades, even as the prison population has exploded by a factor of four in as many decades.

The fact is that who gets locked up is not inscribed in the Constitution. Society and its shifting mores has always determined who gets jailed - including the 17th century when people could be imprisoned for incurring debts.

More recently, changes in policies in the early 1990s, including a war on drugs, broadened the kinds of crimes that mandated jail. Not surprisingly, this lead to a dramatic rise in incarceration; while the U.S. has 5 percent of the world's population, it has 25 percent of the world's prisoners. This mass incarceration has continued even as the crime rates have declined.

But there is increasing understanding that these policies have done more harm than good, especially in the black community, where a wildly disproportionate number of blacks are targeted for arrest and imprisonment. In fact, according to Pew Research Center study, black men were six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated.

There is even more awareness that arrest rates are divorced from actual crime rates. For example, while whites and blacks use drugs at the same rates, blacks are far more likely to be arrested for selling or possessing drugs than whites.

And let's not forget the Department of Justice report following the incident in Ferguson, Mo., which found that the city has almost as many active arrest warrants as it has residents. Such warrants, often from traffic tickets or other minor infractions, was a way for the city to raise money, mostly from low income blacks.

Our imprisonment spree has had serious consequences. For example, having a criminal record is a major barrier to finding work, and this barrier is a key driver to high poverty rates. A criminal record is a "poison pill," creating obstacles not only to work but to housing, education and public assistance - no matter how minor the crime.

Yesterday, state Sen. Stuart Greenleaf and the Senate Judiciary Committtee held hearings on how that might change. A "clean slate" proposal that has gained support of bipartisan groups, including the Coalition for Public Safety calls for minor nonviolent records to be automatically sealed once individuals have proven their rehabilitation through remaining crime-free for a set period of time. Supporters say the proposal has the potential to make a huge dent in the poverty rate, boost labor force participation, and save taxpayer dollars in reduced incarceration costs. And it will increase public safety.

Isn't it better to give more Americans the chance for a decent living than to continue to inflict punishment, especially since that punishment extends to families, communities and taxpayers? This is an easy change that lawmakers should enact as soon as possible.