(ATLANTA) — They’ve done their time behind bars and been on good behavior since their release, but advocates say some of Georgia’s 4.2 million former felons are still shackled by their past deeds.
While the state’s unemployment rate is around 3.4%, the unemployment rate for residents with criminal records is close to 15%, according to Douglas Ammar, the executive director of the non-profit group the Georgia Justice Project.
“We’ve run into this issue all of the time, and it’s affecting whole communities,” he said. “Everyone in Georgia knows someone who was incarcerated and is struggling to find housing or a job.”
The issue has become so widespread that elected officials are proposing a major change to its laws that would allow former non-violent felons the right to expunge their record following good behavior. Rep. Mandi Ballinger first introduced the “Second Chance” bill in the Georgia House of Representatives last year and re-introduced it this month, with the support of various district attorney offices, prison reform advocates and other groups.
Ballinger said she personally doesn’t know anyone close to her that has a criminal record, but because 40% of the state’s population has had a misdemeanor or felony conviction — a rate that’s among the highest in the nation — everyone is feeling the effects.
“I’ve heard from many people who say it’s happening to their brother or it’s happening to their father or it’s happening to their wife,” Ballinger said. “Having a criminal conviction means you made a mistake. It shouldn’t prohibit you from getting gainful employment.”
The Georgia Budget Policy Institute found that formerly incarcerated residents lost on average $36,000 in wages last year, which amounted to about $2.6 billion in wasted spending power. Forty states have a criminal record expungement program, including North Carolina and Arkansas, according to the Georgia Justice Project.
Under Georgia’s current law, arrests that don’t lead to convictions and misdemeanor convictions for minors are the only crimes that can be expunged. The Second Chance bill would allow former prisoners who committed non-violent crimes to send a request to a judge seeking to expunge their record after a certain number of years of good behavior.
People who were convicted of misdemeanors would have to wait at least three years after their release, while those who were convicted of felonies would have to wait at least five years, according to the bill’s current language.
The bill exempts several criminal charges including sex crimes, murder and kidnapping, and it allows judges to consider several factors, including victim objections, before making a decision on expungement.
Representatives for Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp declined to comment on the bill when contacted by ABC News. Ballinger, a Republican, said her colleagues on the other side of the aisle have expressed support for the measure.
She added that several business improvement groups, including the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, also back the proposal.
“We all like the goal of the bill, which is to get people back on their feet,” she said.
Ammar, the Georgia Justice Project director, said that the bill has a way to go as everyone hammers out the details on how it would work, but that he is confident that it will pass. The number of former felons who are looking for jobs will be on the rise over the next couple of years, and the state will lose out if it doesn’t’ address the issue, he said.
“For the last 30 years, this country has been locking up a huge number of people. That has caught up to us,” he said.
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