CHARLES O. OCHIE: Released inmates need adjustment help

Charles O. Ochie Sr.

The 2020 Georgia legislative session is shaping up to be an interesting — and hopefully a productive — session for criminal justice-re-entry reforms as both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have introduced six expungement bills in the legislature. The Second Chance for Georgia campaign for 2020 is specifically about expanding expungement to bring Georgia’s law more in line with 40 other states that allow someone who had demonstrated they are law-abiding to expunge their records.

On Feb. 27, 2020, Albany Second Chance, in conjunction with the Georgia Justice Project, will provide free transportation, free breakfast and free lunch to take a busload of students and community members as they have done in the past several years to the 2020 Justice Day at the Capitol. This is a day designed to give everyday people an opportunity to learn about criminal legal reform, build relationships with each other and advocate for change to elected officials.

Since 2012, the Georgia legislature and former Gov. Nathan Deal have been tackling Criminal Justice re-entry reform in the Georgia legislature. Several important reforms have been accomplished and passed into law. In 2020, reform advocates are calling for serious reforms in Georgia expungement laws. The state’s laws are among the toughest in the country and need to be brought in line with 40 other states.

The purpose of expungement is to reward those who have successfully completed their sentence and remained crime-free. It allows individuals who have demonstrated a seriousness of repentance and rehabilitation to more fully assimilate back into society without the dark cloud of their conviction. Studies show that after seven crime-free years, “the likelihood of an offender re-offending is negligibly higher than the likelihood of an average citizens committing a first crime.”

In Georgia, 4.2 million people (nearly 40% of adults) have a criminal record. Many have already successfully completed their sentences, lived law-abiding lives for years, are no threat to society, yet they still struggle to find employment and housing because their conviction is a scarlet letter that follows them forever in Georgia. But it doesn’t have to be that way — our state lags behind the majority of America when it comes to expungement and giving people a second chance.

No matter how many years have passed or how much a person has changed, almost all convictions stay on a person’s record forever in Georgia … creating lifetime barriers to employment, housing and well-being. Today, 40 states are ahead of us – 40 states! – because they allow expungement of convictions to help get people back to work. Georgia can do better. Our current archaic and narrow expungement law leave thousands of individuals without the means to earn a living.

Almost on a daily basis these individuals come to our office to assist them in finding their feet back into society in employment, housing, etc. These individuals have paid their debt to society and are now trying to earn a living, raise a family and become a positive, contributing individual in our society. But no one will hire them. With their past records expunged (or sealed), they will get a second chance, a new opportunity. They do deserve that chance.

Consider our economic health. Employment is a key predictor in reducing recidivism, yet Georgia is keeping thousands of individuals locked out of the labor market forever. Especially with 250,000 unfilled jobs in Georgia, this just doesn’t make sense.

♦ The state of Illinois found that steady employment led to a 62% reduction in recidivism for people with a criminal record.

♦ Michigan found that a cleared record increased likelihood of employment by 11% and wages by 22% in the first year.

♦ A Stanford University study shows that record expungement led to an average increase of $6,190 in yearly income per individual.

If Georgia expands its expungement law, it would increase public safety, bolster our economy and give more people the chance to work and rebuild their lives.

Georgia has the highest rate of correctional control in the country, almost twice the rate of the next most punitive state. Our expungement law is far too restrictive and leaves thousands facing a dead-end path with no way out. Nearly all of us have a relative, a friend or an acquaintance who has had some sort of encounter with law enforcement. For those who have paid their debt and demonstrated rehabilitation, it’s time to help them start over and get back to work. Not only is this the right thing to do, but our society will be better. Our state and local economy will get stronger. Our state will thrive. Georgia can set a positive example, not a negative one, when it comes to helping individuals create better futures instead of forever looking backward at their past mistakes.

It’s time for Georgia to step up and be among the nation’s leaders … not lag behind 40 other states who have seen the social and economic benefits of expunging convictions after a period of time. Please help by spreading the word about the need to change Georgia’s law. Tell your elected prosecutors and state legislators that you believe in second chances. Encourage them to vote to expand expungement. Visit SecondChanceGeorgia.org to learn more and find out how you can help, and call Albany Second Chance at (229) 883-3440 and join us for the free trip to the 2020 Justice Day at the Capitol.

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Charles O. Ochie is the director of Graduate School and a professor of Criminal Justice at Albany State University. He is the president/CEO and co-founder of Albany Second Chance and a criminal justice/re-entry reform advocate.

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