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Here’s to second chances

I am a big believer in offering people second and third chances. In one’s personal life, a one-strike-and-you-are-out policy would make for a lonely existence. But when it comes to those we do not know and particularly with those who have a criminal record there is a tendency to judge without regard to the human condition and factors that may have led to the indiscretions. A recent Daily Record story on lawmakers’ fourth attempt to pass the Second Chance Act reminded me of the difficulty of breaking down obstacles placed in front of those who were convicted of even minor crimes and the importance of trying to do so.

My thinking on the Second Chance Act and, more broadly, my thinking on the need to reform the structure of our criminal justice system has evolved over several years. I was a criminal justice major as an undergraduate and kicked around the idea of entering the law enforcement profession. During law school, I assisted in the prosecution of defendants accused of lower-level offenses, which mainly consisted of drug crimes, as an intern with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. As a third-year law student, being on my feet in court and making the best arguments I could was thrilling.

Now, as someone whose eyes have been opened to the failure of the “drug war” and who believes that marijuana should be legalized (a topic for another post), I hope that those convicted of drug-related offenses do not suffer permanent consequences.

The Second Chance Act being debated in the Maryland legislature is narrow in scope and should be embraced as a step in the right direction toward allowing greater opportunity to people who have run afoul of the law. The proposed legislation merely allows members of our community who were convicted of crimes such as disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, drug possession, driving without a license, theft under $1,000 and prostitution to file a petition in court three years after completing their sentence and any probation (or five years afterward for theft) requesting that their conviction be shielded from view by the public on the Maryland Judiciary Case Search website and from mandatory disclosure to employers. The law would forbid an employer to require disclosure of the shielded conviction during the application and interview process; an employer may not refuse to hire or, if already employed, fire someone solely based on the refusal to disclose shielded convictions.

The law would grant exceptions to employers that are required by statute or contract to complete criminal background checks. There are also hurdles that can be placed in front of the petitioner that may result in the denial of conviction shielding. The state’s attorney is notified of any petition and may object, which triggers a hearing in which the court will determine if the conviction will be shielded. In addition, victims would be given notice of the proposed shielding and an opportunity to provide additional information to the court.

The proposed law makes clear that it allows only a once-in-a-lifetime chance to those with criminal records. The pertinent provision reads, “A court may grant only one shielding petition to a person over the lifetime of the person.” A one-time shielding of minor offenses for those who are seeking employment seems but a modest step along a longer journey to providing real opportunities to everyone in our society who wants to take part in a meaningful way. That is unless you have an absolute stance against those who have ever possessed drugs, shoplifted or were disorderly in their conduct.

I suspect most of us, if we took a spin through our mental rolodex of friends, family or even our own history might find that we do not have such an absolute aversion to those who have committed minor infractions.