Unring-ing the Bell

A recent news report tells us that Georgia lawmakers are once again looking at the way the state deals with criminal records, especially those that have been expunged.  The problem is that even when a criminal record is expunged it often ends up on someone’s radar.  Once that happens, there is very little that can be done to repair the damage done to the person’s reputation and prospects for employment or some other opportunity.  As they say in the law, you cannot “unring the bell”.

What caught my attention from this news report, however, is the following remark made by a state senator here in Georgia as to the reason why he decided to look into the expungment law in the first place:

“As a conservative I believe once somebody has paid their debt to society for a crime they’ve committed–they’ve been punished–then what I want that person to do is climb the economic ladder of success, become a productive citizen, pay taxes like all of us do and not go back to a life of crime,” McKoon explained. “[It’s] hard to do that if we place these barriers to employment.”

There are many troubling assumptions that are contained in this statement.  The senator, like most folks in the U.S., equates productivity with economic output so that a person who makes more money is considered more productive than the person who makes less money.  This, of course, is untrue. There are endless examples of why this is so.  Professional athletes are but one such example, investment bankers, another.  That most Americans  subscribe to the theory espoused by the senator  is one reason why income inequality in this country continues to worsen over time.  Along the same lines is the myth, implicit in the above statement, that everyone has a fair shot at “economic success” regardless of his or her background or circumstances.  This is also untrue.  And again, endless examples abound.  Indeed, one need look no further than the expungement “problem” where individuals with expunged criminal records are routinely denied employment and other opportunities.  It is no coincidence that these individuals are generally minorities who have led  hardscrabble lives.  The criminal record is just the hook on which the employer needs to hang his hat before he shows his applicant the door.  Finally, there is the assumption that a person who commits a crime is hardwired for this kind of activity and that this person will change only if we show him the way (i.e., climbing the economic ladder of success).  It is true that the majority of individuals who commit crimes do so because they need to not because they want to, but this “need” is borne from one’s circumstances not from one’s genetic makeup.

I do not mean to suggest that there is no room for advancement in the United States or other countries that share the general belief that one’s worth is measured in dollars or pounds.  But that room is far smaller than what we are often led to believe is the case.  And the sooner we realize that, the sooner we can make the case that present state of affairs cannot be sustained over the long term and must be changed.

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