Beyond Paper Prisons: Expanding Second Chances in Delaware

America’s decades-old culture of tough-on-crime policies has created an unprecedented criminal justice crisis: A staggering number of Americans find themselves locked in a paper prison, with no end to their sentence, even after they’ve served their time.

Nearly 1 in 3 people have some sort of arrest or conviction on their record. In Delaware, over 400,000 people are saddled with arrest or criminal records that block their access to jobs, housing, education, starting a business, or participating fully in social and civic community life. That’s why we’re teaming up with the National Clean Slate Initiative, the Delaware Coalition for Smart Justice, Delaware Center for Justice, Game Changers, and the Paper Prisons Initiative to launch a Clean Slate effort right here in our state.

The National Clean Slate Initiative is a movement to automate the clearing of criminal records after a period of time, allowing people who have served their debt to society to move on with their lives. It is spurred by a belief in second chances, a belief that an old criminal record should not lead to a lifetime of poverty or stigma. In fact, a research study done by Michigan Law found that those who are able to obtain expungements have very little risk of recidivism and a significant improvement in their income and ability to secure stable employment.

In Delaware, our advocacy campaign aims to build on the second chance successes we’ve already accomplished by passing legislation that will automatically seal or expunge certain arrest or criminal records after a set period of time. Through our efforts, we seek to ensure that more Delawareans can move beyond their paper prisons and receive a true second chance at economic success and inclusion in their communities.

Clean Slate policies are popular. Automatic record sealing is supported by criminal justice reform experts, economic and civil rights activists, policy-makers on both sides of the aisle, justice-involved individuals, crime survivors, business owners, prosecutors and law enforcement leaders.

Currently, most Delawareans with an arrest or criminal record face significant barriers to education, employment, housing, credit, and other opportunities to become productive, contributing members of society. This can lead to further arrests, convictions and returns to prison. No matter how minor the offense or how long ago it was, an employer, a landlord, or a college may have policies or regulatory requirements that exclude those with criminal records. Even in the absence of formal barriers, the stigma of a criminal record can be a lifelong barrier to opportunity. 

We believe more Delawareans should be able to move beyond their paper prisons and receive a true second chance at economic success and inclusion in their communities. For the past several years, we’ve been making significant headway toward expanding access to second chances in Delaware. 

In 2018, the General Assembly passed a major juvenile expungement bill, giving Delaware Family Court the option to immediately expunge a felony arrest record if a child is found not delinquent or the charge is dismissed, eliminating the need for a separate application and proceeding.

In 2019, the General Assembly passed another important expungement bill expanding access to second chances for adult Delawareans by creating adult expungement opportunities for most misdemeanors and felonies after a 3-7 year waiting period (depending on the underlying crime) without another conviction.

The work that’s been done to move expungement access in Delaware is an incredible start, but there’s still more work to do. The COVID-19 crisis and the nationwide recession has only deepened the problems caused by permanent criminal and arrest records. 

Clean Slate legislation affects every Delawarean, whether you have a record or not:

  • For anyone with a criminal or arrest record who paid their debt to society, a second chance means access to education and job training, a stable job, livable income and safe housing for them and their family; 
  • For taxpayers, it means a more efficient legal system unburdened by the transactional costs of record-clearing petitions in courts; 
  • For communities across Delaware, fewer people on-track for repeat offenses and more jail time means safer streets; and 
  • For businesses, it means more qualified job applicants meeting the needs of the workforce, and it means a stronger local economy.

Delaware needs Clean Slate policies now more than ever to ensure that the hundreds of thousands of people trapped in paper prisons can be included in the nation’s recovery. Everyone stands to win with Delaware Clean Slate legislation.


Action Items

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Join us on March 24 at 6:00 p.m. via Zoom to learn the answers to these questions and hear directly from Sussex County residents who are impacted by the collateral consequences that come with conviction records — even after they have served their sentences.

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Reports & Resources

Paper Prisons Initiative Report on Second Chance Gaps in Delaware

The Second Chance Gap Initiative of Santa Clara University conducts research to draw attention to the tens of millions of Americans who have completed their time but remain stuck in “paper prisons.” They are burdened by criminal records eligible to be removed, but— due to administrative, debt, and other hurdles—remain on their records, often barring employment, housing, voting, and reintegration opportunities. This report highlights those second change gaps in Delaware.

Read the Report

University of Michigan Law School Study on Expungements

The consequences of a run-in with the law can persist for decades after the formal sentence has been served. People with records face major barriers to employment, housing and education, effectively condemning them to second-class citizenship. This study by J.J. Prescott and Sonja B. Starr, professors at the University of Michigan Law School, shows the benefits of giving people a clean slate.

READ THE study