Almost half of all individuals who are released from jail or prison in Missouri will be reincarcerated, according to the most recent data. In Illinois, where I used to work with people when they came out of incarceration, the numbers are similar.
There’s a familiar fable we tell ourselves: when someone is released from prison, they’ve “served their time” and can now re-enter society and begin their life anew. This helps us free the broader society from obligation when someone ends up back in jail — we get to tell ourselves they’re just a lost cause and can’t stop breaking the law.
The truth is much harder to justify. Society continually fails its formerly incarcerated citizens, often leaving them with very few opportunities to earn a living.
Many business owners and government entities refuse to hire someone who spent time in jail even for a low-skill job. Unable to find legal gainful employment, many will provide for themselves and their family the only way they can — through illegal means such as dealing drugs.
Then, when they’re inevitably caught, they go back to jail and the cycle continues.
This is how a single arrest at a young age for a victimless minor crime can end up destroying a life.
I worked with many men and women, some of them younger than I was at the time, who had just finished serving their fourth or fifth stint in prison, which had snowballed from a single marijuana possession case when they were a teenager. It is a vicious, unforgiving cycle, and it doesn’t need to be that way.
Today, 18 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use, or have passed laws that will make it legal in the coming months. In Washington state, recreational use has become so normalized that the government is offering its citizens a free joint when they get a COVID-19 vaccine as part of an incentive program.
This has created a wildly unfair dichotomy — while more than 15 million Americans have been arrested for marijuana offenses in the last decade, millions of others freely enjoy the benefits of the substance without legal consequence.
It’s obvious that this is unacceptable. How can we continue to punish and incarcerate individuals for something that is now perfectly legal in so many places? Clearly, any recreational marijuana legalization needs to be matched by releasing anyone who is currently locked up for marijuana offenses.
But we have to go further than that. Anyone who is released from incarceration must also have their criminal record expunged of all marijuana-related offenses, and it must be done automatically.
Why automatic expungement? Because it’s the only thing that truly works.
Think of the difficulty you face any time you have to deal with government bureaucracy. To even renew your driver’s license, you need multiple forms, identification and a few hours of free time. Imagine going through an even lengthier process after serving time for a number of years prior.
There is also the cost that comes with legal and bureaucratic fees in order to make sure everything is done right. It’s a herculean task that takes too much money and time that could be instead used to find gainful employment. And without an expunged record, that gainful employment is a pipe dream. Most employers aren’t willing to hire someone with a criminal record, even if it’s for something that is now legal and acceptable.
Instead, states like Missouri that are considering legalizing marijuana for recreational adult use should match that legalization with automatic expungement. And this is where Missouri can actually be a leader.
Although six or seven states (depending on who you ask) have passed laws that automatically expunge marijuana-related criminal records, none have done so through ballot initiative.
We know that Missouri often passes smart and effective reform through the ballot initiative process, and you can bet that recreational marijuana legalization is not far on the horizon. If the language in that petition includes automatic expungement, it would create the opportunity for Missourians to say, with one voice, that we don’t want to be part of a system that punishes some and rewards others for the way they spend their free time.
We should seize the opportunity.
This commentary by Conner Kerrigan is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.