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Suffering the enduring effects of a criminal record

We live in an age where having a private past is becoming nearly impossible. With the internet and digitized record-keeping systems, details from your past can haunt your present in some unexpected ways.

One particular problem has existed far longer than the internet but has certainly gotten worse because of it: criminal records. A conviction from decades ago could prevent someone from getting a job today - not to mention a home or federal student aid. The negative impact that a criminal record carries is antithetical to the idea that a conviction comes with a sentence, followed by a return to full participation in society.

To combat the problem of criminal records as a barrier to employment, a number of states (but not Wisconsin) have enacted "ban the box" laws. But these don't prevent an employer from checking a person's criminal record later in the interviewing/hiring process. Is there a way to de-stigmatize a criminal conviction and demonstrate that a person's past is not a reflection of who they are today?

Earlier this year, the New York Times ran an article about a federal judge who was willing to revisit an old case. In 2003, the judge had sentenced a woman to 15 months in prison after she was convicted of abetting insurance fraud by participating in a staged car accident.

The judge thinks his sentence was appropriate, but not its aftermath. The woman, who is a nurse, has been unable to find a job in her field because of that conviction some 13 years ago. Her criminal record since that time has been spotless.

The woman approached the judge hoping to have her conviction expunged. Although he didn't think expungement was appropriate, he did issue the woman a voucher of good character. Although there is no official document like this, he called it a "federal certificate of rehabilitation."

In a 31-page opinion related to the case, the judge wrote: "I had no intention to sentence her to the unending hardship she has endured in the job market." Unfortunately, many criminal records do just that.

The judge retired shortly after giving the woman her certificate (and hopefully, a better employment outlook). It is unclear if any other judges are following in his footsteps. But this is an issue that can no longer be overlooked. Freedom after a sentence has been served must mean more than just lack of incarceration.

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