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Bill Would 'Shield' Some Criminal Records

Christopher Connelly/WYPR

Everyone makes mistakes – often they’re youthful mistakes – and everyone deserves a second chance. That was the message from supporters of the Maryland Second Chance Act in Annapolis on Wednesday when Senate and House committees held hearings. The legislation is intended to help people with minor crimes on their record by letting them shield those convictions from basic searches.

Nationwide, one in four adults has a criminal record, and studies have found that often means difficulties in life even long after they’ve served their sentences.  A criminal record makes you half as likely to get a job call back or offer. Housing can also be difficult to find when a simple background check turns up a conviction. Drug convictions often disqualify offfenders from student loans. Supporters of the bill say that marginalizing people with criminal records contributes to recidivism.

“It keeps them from getting the good job that they want, in some cases it keeps them from getting student loans,” says Del. Curt Anderon, who sponsored the House bill. “So we want to be able to shield that information so it wouldn’t be a bar for someone trying to move on with their life.”

Dayvon Neverdon was at the hearing to tell lawmakers about drastic, long-lasting impact a criminal record has on offenders lives. He was caught selling drugs in his northwest Baltimore neighborhood when he was a teenager, and it’s haunted him ever since.

“I sold drugs in my community,” Neverdon said. “I did five years in prison and was released 1997, December 27th. I will never do that again. That was the most disgusting thing I could have ever did. But do I still pay for it after I gave you your five years in prison?”

Neverdon says he’s had trouble finding anything more than part-time, low wage jobs since he got out. He earns 8 bucks an hour now. His drug record disqualifies him from housing he can afford – and so hasn’t always been able to support his kids.

“I’m 40 now. I caught this charge when I was 19 and I’m living the same hell like it was just yesterday,” Neverdon said. “I’m not free.”

The legislation would let people apply to have those convictions ‘shielded’ from public searches at least three years after they finish serving their sentence, depending on the crime.

The criminal record isn’t expunged. Law enforcement and employers legally obligated to do background checks would still be able to see a criminal record. But it would mean that when a person applies for a job, tries to rent an apartment, or applies to college, a past offense won’t show up on a basic search.

John Mello says he sees the lasting consequences of a criminal record working at a job skills training nonprofit in Baltimore, but he told the House Judiciary Committee he sees it in his own family, too. His brother was picked up for possession of a small amount of drugs years ago, he says. Mello says he himself could have been busted for that when he was young, but he never got caught.

“When he applies for jobs, he gets turned down. I get the job I am qualified for. When he applies for apartments, he gets turned town. I get housing I can afford.” He told lamakers. “I have a high school diploma, he has a college degree, but I can get the job that he can’t.”

The Maryland Second Chance Act would help Mello’s brother shield his conviction, but the bill is limited. Only 13 offenses are eligible for shielding; prostitution, trespassing, and minor theft and drug possession offenses are among them.

The list doesn’t include felonies, so Dayvon Neverdon’s dealing charge will still be out there. Mark Matthews of Clean Slate America says the problem with this bill is that it’s too narrow and should be changed to include nonviolent felonies.

“All felonies are not heinous crimes,” Matthews said. “They are not all threats to society. So a second chance act has continued to marginalize the re-entry community just as the general public has been doing.”

Matthews works with ex-offenders and he says that he hears the problems that felons have because of their records, even decades after they served their sentence and were supposedly rehabilitated.

“I have people who have felonies that are decades old – ten, twenty, thirty years ago they committed a crime,” he said. “But they’ve changed their life, and now they are finding it difficult to find new employment for many of them.”

And he says that extends to families too, leaving taxpayers footing the bill to pay for public assistance ex-offenders and their children often rely on because they can’t find good jobs or affordable housing.

Business groups like the Chamber of Commerce have opposed the bill. They want employers to be able to know who they’re hiring. Del. Susan McComas, sits on the House Judicial Proceedings Committee and voted against the bill last year because she worried about employers.

“If you’re going to hold businesses responsible for the hiring then they need to have all the information and the tools at their disposal to make an informed decision,” McComas said.

Law enforcement organizations have also opposed the bill, but Attorney General Doug Gansler and a handful of states attorneys testified in support of the legislation. Gansler says it will help close what he calls the prison system’s revolving door. And he says the bill’s limited scope is similar to what’s passed in numerous other states with no problems.

“It’s nonviolent, misdemeanor convictions with a three year period after the sentence itself is completed, so you really are protecting the community as well as giving people a chance to succeed,” Gansler said.

Both the House and Senate passed the bill last year – but failed iron out the differences between their two versions before the session ended.

This year, supporters of the legislation hope that years of working to build support means that the Second Chance Act will get a second chance to pass.