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Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester introduces federal criminal justice legislation for 'clean slate'

Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
U.S. Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester talks about her criminal justice reform bill, called the Clean Slate Act, at the Wilmington HOPE Commission Tuesday

Delaware’s lone Congresswoman has introduced criminal justice reform legislation that could help give some with criminal records a second chance.


The Clean Slate Act would establish a process for individuals to petition federal courts to seal records of nonviolent federal offenses. It would automatically seal records of non-violent marijuana offenses. It would also require the automatic sealing of arrest records for those who have been acquitted.

Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester introduced the measure this week alongside Republican Congressman Guy Reschenthaler of Pennsylvania.

"A criminal record can be a life sentence to poverty." - Rebecca Vallas

Blunt Rochester says one in three Americans have some type of criminal record - which can lead to barriers in education, housing and employment. “People have paid their debt,” she said. “They just need a slate that’s clean so that they can go to work, so that they can get a home, so that they can go to college. But around the country, we need to do this in every state as well.”

“It doesn’t matter how old or how minor your record is … a criminal record can be a life sentence to poverty,” said Rebecca Vallas, head of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the progressive think-tank Center for American Progress.  “That is not something anyone ever intended to be the case, but in the digital era, that is how our broken policies are unfortunately playing out. ”


Credit Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
Haneef Salaam, in-reach coordinator at the HOPE Commission, still faces career barriers stemming from a drug conviction almost two decades ago.

Haneef Salaam is the "in-reach coordinator" at the Wilmington HOPE Commission, a nonprofit focused on re-entry programming and community revitalization. He says a study by the American Bar Association shows Delaware has over 700 rules and regulations that prevent those with criminal records from having "a true second chance" once they come home from prison. 

"FAFSA, student financial aid—if you have a felony drug conviction, you cannot be approved for financial aid," said Salaam. "Currently in Delaware, not only can you not apply for rent subsidy or governnment assistance [for] housing, but you may not reside with anyone that is receiving that assistance from the government."

Salaam says he was convicted of felony drug charges in 2000 and, after spending time in prison more than a decade ago, faces limitations on which occupational liscenses he can receive.

"Still to this day, I'm unable to work in the banking or administrative fields," he said. "That was my first true dream, to work in a bank." He says he is also unable to receive a liscense to sell real estate. "I just found a way to still earn for my family, despite the challenges."

Rep. Blunt Rochester's Clean Slate Act would protect employers from liability for employee misconduct relating to a sealed criminal record. It would not allow sex offenders or those convicted of terrorism, treason or violent offenses to seal their records.

Delaware state Sen. Darius Brown says he plans to introduce similar state-level legislation next month.


This story has been updated.

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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